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a) Can you imagine a context where you would use sentence "x"?

Q) Are we requesting the person to try to make an effort to imagine a context where..., or are we just asking whether he is able to imagine (or capable of imagining) such a context?

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  • I think it means the second, but how do you know you can imagine something unless you actually do imagine it? – Peter Sep 16 '20 at 12:23
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    Does this answer your question? How do you distinguish possibility "can" from ability "can"? See also Using 'can' for possibility – FumbleFingers Sep 16 '20 at 12:49
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica, sorry that didn't answer my question. My simple question is: Is sentence a) in the OP a request to someone? Like this one: "can you help me learn spanish?" – Mr. X Sep 16 '20 at 14:00
  • Your text is ambiguous, as pointed out by the answer here and both answers to the linked duplicate. Pragmatically, we can assume that although it's framed as a "request" to the addressee to confirm or deny ability, the intended meaning is probably that speaker doesn't believe the addressee could in fact do it. Effectively, it's a "challenge" (I think you can't do it. Prove me wrong if you can). But that's only "probable" - without knowing the exact context, we're just expressing opinions. – FumbleFingers Sep 16 '20 at 14:12
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It's not explicit, so technically it could be either. But generally if someone asks "can you imagine [a thing, a situation] where [some criteria are met]" they want you to explain what you've come up with, rather than just replying "yep".

Contrast that with a sentence like "can you imagine having to beg for food", where they're not asking you to describe what that would be like, they're just inviting you to think about it. They're not asking to you puzzle out some circumstances that would lead to you being in that situation, you're just supposed to imagine it's already happened, and the how isn't important.

Your example sounds like an exercise from an English class though, so honestly it depends - they might just want you to do the work of thinking about the sentence on your own, or they might actually want you to produce an answer. It depends on the context!


Also I should point out, there are people who like to say that can means able to, so when people ask "can I have a drink?" they "yes... that is a thing that's possible ha ha ha". It's clear that it was a request, but they're being pedantic, and people usually don't like that. So be careful!

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  • So what if the context is: Suppose I give you a sentence and say: I can't think of a context for this sentence. Can you imagine one where you would use this sentence? ---Is this a request using "can" or am I asking about the person's ability to imagine such a context? – Mr. X Sep 16 '20 at 22:43
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    I'd argue it's both! You're saying you're not able to do it, and you're asking if it's possible for me... but if I say I can think of a context, you probably want me to explain it to you, right? If I just said "yes I can" that would probably feel a bit rude! It still depends on the context (maybe I can't give you the answer, but you want to know if it's at least possible) but generally if it's just an "is it possible" question, the person asking will make it clear they don't want you to tell them the answer. Most people would see it as a request for help, I think! – cactustictacs Sep 17 '20 at 11:32
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    Yeah, I could say "yes I can think of one" or "I can imagine a few situations where you could use it" so you know that there is an answer. – cactustictacs Sep 17 '20 at 18:15
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    I just thought of something else - if someone puts the stress on the word you, it sounds less like a request and more like a question about whether you can [do whatever]. You're making it about the person, the emphasis on you makes it feel like a comparison to someone else. "I can think of one, can you?" It's not about explaining or demonstrating something, it's more about whether you're able to do it at all. You don't always need to do this - "can you dance" probably wouldn't be taken as a request for a demonstration! But when it's unclear, you can use that emphasis – cactustictacs Sep 17 '20 at 18:29
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    Not necessarily a challenge (although it could be), it could just be person A saying "this is really hard for me, is it hard for you too?" The emphasis on you implies you're making them the subject (of a comparison). As for the question, those are fairly different things - "can you help" is obviously a request (a fairly broad one!) for somebody to do something for you. "Can you imagine [something]" is just a specific question... it's hard to think of a situation where someone would ask you to do that for them as a favour. It sounds more like a practice exercise for you to do! – cactustictacs Sep 17 '20 at 19:01

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