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In a cultural function, some seats were reserved for the distinguished persons. But an ordinary spectator wanted to have one of those reserved seats which were empty. He said to the guard, "Can I sit there?" The guard replied, "Yes, you can. But you may not."

What did the guard mean by these modals : 'can' & 'may'?

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    The guard was being a smartass, which is surprising, guarding duties usually doesn't attract people with high-brow attitudes and a proclivity for splitting hairs over usage of the conditional mood over the subjunctive. May 7 '20 at 14:06
  • along these same lines, also be aware of the subtle distinction and overlap between may and might : both can be used for both possibility and permission, e.g., "I might go to the store later" vs. "might I have another cookie?"; and "if it isn't too crowded, I may go to the movies" vs. "I may not have pets in my apartment"; someone being as pedantic as this guard was could play games with "may" and "might"
    – landru27
    May 7 '20 at 14:26
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    My mother used this statement on my siblings and I constantly. We were slow learners, I guess.
    – NomadMaker
    May 7 '20 at 17:42
  • @StianYttervik Alternately, the guard was answering the question in a strictly correct manner as one would expect from institutionally trained people (I'm assuming royal palace type guard, not rent-a-cop). Being aware that the spectator would be likely to misinterpret his answer the guard also provided a translation set to his level of ignora..., errr, understanding. ;-)
    – mcalex
    May 8 '20 at 12:28
  • @StianYttervik You mean, nobody with a high Liberal Arts education works as a guard? You wish ... welcome to the gig economy.
    – Kaz
    May 9 '20 at 15:07
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This is what was meant:

Yes, you are capable of sitting there. But you are not permitted to do so.


It's using the following senses of the words (from Merriam-Webster).

Can:

1 a : be physically or mentally able to
// He can lift 200 pounds.

May:

1 b : have permission to
// you may go now


Both can and may have multiple senses, and frequently can is used to express permission (rather than capability) in the sense of may quoted here.

So, the response from the guard, drawing a distinction between the two, is a kind of snide reply—inferring one sense of can to the person asking the question, rather than what would normally be assumed. No doubt the guard actually knew what the person was asking and just wanted to put them down subtly.

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    I disagree with 'subtly'. The guard response is rude and direct. Obscure, maybe, but not subtle.
    – Jeffrey
    May 7 '20 at 12:04
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    @Jeffrey Not everybody who responds in such a way is being rude. For instance, a prescriptivist who always corrects people could do so out of habit or to make a simple point, rather than trying to make an example out of a particular person. (A correction rather than a put-down.) Or, with the right tone of voice, it could be a joking response that both parties smile and laugh about. Passive aggressive behaviour is normally subtle to most. It might be obvious to some, but not to others. May 7 '20 at 13:04
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    @JasonBassford : your comment is correct, but you are both speculating : Jeffrey's comment was just spring-boarding off of your own last-line "no doubt" opinion about it being a subtle put-down; your more circumspect comment that we cannot really say what the guard's frame of mind was is much more pertinent; but if you are going to speculate, it's only fair if you allow others to speculate also
    – landru27
    May 7 '20 at 14:19
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    Those who subscribe to language descriptivism would argue that the guard was wrong to correct the spectator. Take note that the Meriam webster link provided by Jason does include the following definition for Can: "have permission to —used interchangeably with may." A decent population of native speakers prefer "can" over "may" when asking permission, unless using "may" is necessary to remove ambiguity. In this case described by OP, there was no ambiguity; the guard knew what the spectator meant.
    – Brian
    May 7 '20 at 14:25
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    @Brian I agree but I would go further. At least in the USA, a very large portion of the population strongly prefers "can" to "may". It is almost to the point that the only times I hear "may" used in the sense of permission is by English teachers and when there is a risk of ambiguity. May 7 '20 at 23:34
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In common parlance in the 21st century, it is probably fair to say that "can I" is the more common construction for enquiring about both ability and permission. However, some prescriptivist people insist that "Can I" should only be used to mean "Am I capable of", and that someone wishing to ask permission ("Am I allowed to") should use "May I".

The guard, then, is saying the spectator is physically capable of sitting in those seats, but is forbidden from doing so, and in doing so, passive-aggressively 'correcting' the spectator's grammar.

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    When I was a kid in a London local-authority infants school (age 5-7), in the 1950s, the teachers used to say "You can, but you may not" and wait for the child to rephrase the question. May 7 '20 at 6:17
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    - Mrs, can I go to the bathroom? - I don't know, you tell me, can you go to the bathroom? I would hope so.
    – Lenne
    May 7 '20 at 7:20
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    But a guard is not a teacher of grammar; +1 for marking this as passive-aggressive. I would add "officious" and "superior" and, worst of all, not helpful. Their response can be expected to leave a bad taste in the mouth of someone who was asking a fair question in a common, idiomatic way. If a fire breaks out are they to announce "those among us who choose continued existence may wish to exeunt expediently" and pat themselves on the back?
    – CCTO
    May 7 '20 at 14:53
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    @CCTO - personally, I would agree that this prescriptivism, expressed in this way, is snotty, pedantic and unhelpful, but I was attempting to remain moderately neutral for the sake of my answer! May 7 '20 at 14:55
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    "I can't if you're going to stop me"
    – gunfulker
    May 8 '20 at 8:54
2

There are some things you can do, but considering the social and legal implications some things should not be done. E.g.: you can enter the president's office, but you may not do so for hearing/seeing unwanted things.

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