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Consider this sentence, please:

Is there any possibility that I could use these words in writing?

Can I use the above sentence to take advice/suggestion or does it sound like the speaker's asking permission?

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Without context, the sentence is ambiguous. You might be asking about the possibility, in this case probably meaning "would it be grammatically correct", or you could be asking for permission.

When I was a little boy in elementary school a fad went around the teachers that "can" and "could" refer to ability while "may" refers to permission. So if, say, you asked, "Can I take this book home?" that means "Am I capable of taking this book home?" But "May I take this book home?" means "Do I have permission?" And so the teachers thought it was hysterically funny that if a student asked, "Can I take this book home?" they would reply, "I don't know. Are you strong enough to carry it?"

That was all great except ... it was definitions of the words that the teachers made up. In actual use, people routinely use "can" to refer to permission.

(Many people seem to get great entertainment from making up their own definition of a word, and then making fun of people who use the word with the dictionary definition instead of the definition that they made up.)

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  • You might be asking about the possibility, in this case probably meaning "would it be grammatically correct", or you could be asking for permission. So either meaning is possible depending on the context, right? – Mr. X Apr 17 '20 at 19:39
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    Yes, that's correct. You could reword the sentence to make it clear which you mean, like, "Is there any possibility that I could get permission to ..." or "Would it be grammatically correct to ...", etc. Or it might be clear which you mean from the larger context of surrounding sentences. – Jay Apr 18 '20 at 1:49
  • Thank you. You say: it might be clear which you mean from the larger context of surrounding sentences. Does might in your sentence mean maybe will? (actually, I'm learning these modals now) – Mr. X Apr 18 '20 at 7:11
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    @Mr.X Yes. There was just another question on this forum about the word "might". Maybe you read it. (Maybe you asked it!) But in this case, yes, by "might" I mean, "it is possible" that the context will make it clear. I say "might" because it is also possible that the context is not well written and does NOT make it clear. – Jay Apr 19 '20 at 3:21
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    "You might be asking ..." means "maybe you are asking". But "you might ask ..." means (or would usually mean) "you should consider asking". The same for "you could be asking .." and "you could ask ..." – Jay Apr 19 '20 at 18:02

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