I'm learning modal verbs now using a grammar textbook. There are different topics. One of them is a topic about possibility. I went through the rules part and now I'm doing exercises after it where one asks to rewrite a sentence so it has a similar meaning. I did some but here is one which is tricky for me:

The service in this restaurant is sometimes surly.

It's the present. For present possibility there are two rules:

  1. "we use 'can' to talk about things which are generally possible".
  2. "we usually use 'may', 'might' and 'could' to talk about specific possibilities".

So my answer was:

The service in this restaurant might be surly.

But the right answer from the textbook is

The service in this restaurant can be surly.

Why is it general possibility? We are talking about a specific place here so I think it's about specific possibility.

It will be nice if someone explains what general and specific possibilities mean. What is the difference between them? Of course, I know the difference between something either being general or specific but as you can see it's not enough to do the exercise correctly:) So maybe for native speakers it's more certain.

  • Artem, "surely" is an adverb. Service in a restaurant cannot be "surely". What do you mean by that? That answer in that textbook is meaningless. [example of how to use surely in a sentence: She will surely go to that school, not this one.]
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 10 at 16:30
  • "The service in this restaurant is sometimes surely" doesn't make any sense. The word surely makes no sense here. Where did you find this sentence? It's not correct. It seems to be an error. Did you mean surly?
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jan 10 at 18:20
  • @BillyKerr I don't think service can be surly either. Only people are surly.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 10 at 20:42
  • @Lambie - I agree 100%, but it can't be surely either because that would be complete nonsense. The restaurant staff could be surly though.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jan 10 at 21:53
  • @BillyKerr The OP corrected it and I had already said it was nonsense with surely.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 10 at 21:55

1 Answer 1


Let's simplify the sentence a little bit:

  1. Pat is sometimes surly.

This is a general statement about how Pat is sometimes. They might not be surly right now, but they have been known to be surly in the past so it's possible they will be in the future.

  1. Pat can be surly.

I would understand this to have the same meaning as #1, or "I know Pat and every once in a while they are surly."

  1. Pat might be surly.

I would understand this to mean "I'm not sure, but it's possible that Pat will be surly when you talk to them." An example in context would be something like, "Pat had to pay their taxes today and that always makes them grumpy. They might be surly, but don't take it personally."

Back to your sentence:

The service in this restaurant might be surly.

I would say something like this if my husband and I were trying to decide to go to a restaurant and I had heard rumors about bad service, but I wasn't really sure what kind of service we might receive. I probably wouldn't use "surly" though; I think that's not a very common word for restaurant service unless you're a food critic writing a review.

The service in this restaurant can be surly.

I might say this if I had been to the restaurant more than once and some of those times the service wasn’t good. “I like the food there, but the service can be surly.”

  • Why not can? X can be nice, X can be surly. But yes, I wouldn't say service is surly, only servers.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 10 at 20:44
  • @Lambie I’m not sure I understand your question. She can be nice. In general, she’s capable of being nice. She might be nice. There’s a possibility she will be nice, but we’re not sure one way or the other, or, She might be nice this time, even though she’s usually not.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 10 at 21:51
  • You used might and my question is why not use can? Either would work. She can be nice. is just another example with can.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 10 at 21:54
  • 1
    @ColleenV I think I can also add another example to yours if I correctly understand. I think I can say "The service in this restaurant might be surly" when, let's say, I've been in this restaurant and I know the service there can be surly but sometimes it's not and once taking a walk with my friend we can be passing this restaurant and he can suggest to go there because he's never been there yet and I can say to him "The service here might be surly" because I don't know what service we might get this time. So I can talk in general and I use 'can' but I'm talking about this specific visit now. Commented Jan 14 at 5:27
  • 1
    @ColleenV I was trying to practice these grammar rules providing my own examples. And now I have a feeling that for general situations 'to be + adjective' is only acceptable. This is why it's strange to say 'He can work late' trying to mean what I wanted to mean when you think it's more about ability and now I agree with it because I couldn't produce any. Commented Jan 16 at 15:02

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