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In what way are sentences with modals "can" and "may" usually apprehended?

  1. "I can hear music." Does it mean that finally a person is able to hear music because he has just settled his ear problems? Or, does a person just inform that he hears the music playing at the moment?
  2. "I can smell a flower" (one says holding a flower in his hand sniffing at it). Does it mean that finally a person is able to feel the smell because he has just pulled out of the sniffles? Or, does a person simply relates that he is snuffing the smell of a flower at the moment?

What will be the difference if the verb "can" is swapped for "may"?

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    Doctor: Mr Harvey, your broken finger will be healed in six weeks. Me: Will I be able to play the piano? Doctor: Of course. Me: Great! I never could before! Nov 1, 2022 at 9:06

1 Answer 1

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Context.

Context is everything. It's how you can tell the difference between two entirely different homonyms, such as 'wind' (as in windmill) and 'wind' (as in "wind the bobbin up").

As you rightly state, 'can' could mean that something is possible, or, along with another verb such as 'hear', it can mean you are currently perceiving something. Collins dictionary lists at least 8 slightly varying uses of the word. Context, and other things such as inflection in speech, are how we understand what is meant.

Example 1:

-What can you hear?
-I can hear music.

Example 2:

-How good is your hearing?
-I can hear music, but I can't hear the highest pitches.

Switching 'can' for 'may' as you suggest would produce two unusual sentences. 'May' can indicate possibility, not ability, so "I may hear music" would not mean that you were able. It can also indicate permission.

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