Suppose my friend John is going to cycle in the city. Before he leaves the house, I say this to him to warn him against cycling in the city:

  1. It can be dangerous to cycle in the city if you don't stay on the marked paths.

Now I think this sentence can be interpreted in two (different??) ways depending on how we interpret "you".

If "you" refers to anyone in general, sentence (1) would express a general truth or known fact.

a) It can be dangerous to cycle in the city if you (=one) don't stay on the marked paths. (expressing what is generally possible or a fact)

If "you" refers specifically to John, sentence (1) would express a strong possibility in the future.

b) It can be dangerous to cycle in the city if you (=John) don't stay on the marked paths. (expressing what is going to be possible in the near future)

Q1) Is my understanding correct?

Q2) Although sentence (b) is correct, it would make more sense to use "will" in place of "can". Am I right?


1 Answer 1


Pragmatics. What does John know about cycling and his own place in the world. Is it reasonable that John would believe that he is special in that it would cause danger to other cyclists if John doesn't ride on the paths that is fundamentally different from anybody else?

So certainly there are two possible interpretations. Only one would be understood, and it takes a certain amount of mental effort to even realise that there is an ambiguity.

The word "you" is generic, and the danger is to the person not riding on the paths, and not to other cyclists. Changing to "will" doesn't really change this. The only possible pragmatic interpretation is that this is a warning to John.

  • It's all clear to me. The problem is I don't really understand what the dictionary (link in the comments above) means when it says "can" expresses strong possibility? I mean, if it's a "strong possibility", wouldn't we use "will" instead? Could you please give an example where "can" expresses strong possibility?
    – Mr. X
    Apr 24, 2021 at 16:19
  • 1
    The example you give expresses strong probability "It can be dangerous (for the cyclist) to cycle if you (the cyclist) doesn't stay on marked paths". This is a warning that there is a strong possibility of it being dangerous.
    – James K
    Apr 24, 2021 at 16:30
  • But isn't it a general truth or known fact? The same "can" in you can easily get lost in this town = People often get lost in this town?
    – Mr. X
    Apr 24, 2021 at 16:44
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    I'm not sure I see your point. . . It is a general fact or known truth (in the opinion of the speaker) that there is a strong probability of getting lost in this town. It is not a general fact that everyone always gets lost. When you use words like "often" you mean "not always" and so there is an element of chance: a strong probablilty.
    – James K
    Apr 24, 2021 at 16:51
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    That can expresses abliity, not possiblity. It does express a fact, and that fact will be true tomorrow and was true yesterday, unless the assumptions implicit in the sentence are broken. Look if the dictionaries use of the words "general fact or known truth" are problematic for you, then please ignore them. The word "can" sometimes expresses strong probability "The city can be dangerous". And sometimes ability "I can ride a bike." You distinguish the meanings by context
    – James K
    Apr 24, 2021 at 17:02

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