In the following sentence:

They can disagree.

what I want to say is that the subject, they, can possibly reach a state when they no longer agree. Of course, it can be the opposite - they can agree with each other and live happily ever after, but I'd like to specifically underline the chance for the negative outcome. So what I did is I took an antonym for verb "agree", disagree, and this was all I needed to build this very simple sentence. So far so good.

But what if I have a verb that doesn't have a simple antonym (or I just forgot this antonym and I need to come up quickly with a grammatical construct to compensate this)? Such as negotiate. Obviously, I can't say "they can not negotiate", because in English, "X can not Y" doesn't mean "X can possibly reach a state when X doesn't Y". It means "X won't do Y, never ever". But what should I do, then?

I can probably put a filler word between "can" and "not" to break this pattern, such as:

They can possibly not negotiate. / They can possibly not agree.

But is it correct, is it idiomatic English?


Just replace "can" with "may". "They may not agree".

Wow, that was such a simple problem and I thought it was worthy to ask. So sorry :) I will delete this question if requested.

  • Might would be a little better, only because may is used to indicate permission - so it's possible that "they may not agree" could mean "they are allowed to not agree" in the sense that someone is saying that is an OK outcome. – LawrenceC Jan 26 at 19:49

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