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"Can" can indicate possibility as well as ability. I'm investigating when "can" can indicate possibility.

Is the following use of "can only" correct?

A: John is shouting. Can he be angry?

B: No, he can only be sad, considering how much he has suffered.

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These sentences work. But you might also phrase them with "could". Both "can" and "could" express possibility, though "could" seems more likely. This seems to be because you are not talking about future possibility, but current (and past) uncertainty. So even though there is no "past tense" meaning, "could" would fit better.

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  • I reckon it's wrong to say "John can be sad," meaning "he may/could be sad," isn't it? – Apollyon Apr 12 '20 at 6:49
  • It's OK to say 'John can only be sad' meaning that that is the only possible explanation for his behaviour. – Kate Bunting Apr 12 '20 at 9:05

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