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How do you differentiate these two meanings of this sentence:

You may slurp your soup loudly.

1. You should be careful when drinking soup, otherwise you might slurp and be impolite.

2. You are given permission to slurp your soup.

Is there a way to tell the exact implication of "may?"

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    Context, context, context is always critical. There's also a different stress pattern in speech (permissive may takes less stress). But in writing, with no context, No: there is no way to tell which is meant. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 2 '15 at 21:22
  • @StoneyB The stress pattern is an interesting observation, although I'm not entirely certain I agree (I have to think about it more). That might be a difficult thing for a non-native speaker to hear, too. – stangdon Feb 2 '15 at 21:35
  • Why do you need to use may here? It is highly contextual at best. – user3169 Feb 2 '15 at 21:44
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    @stangdon The de-stress on permissive may can of course be overridden when the context calls for emphasis on the fact that permission has been granted; and the higher stress on epistemic may can be overridden when the complement must be stressed. Again: context, context, context! – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 2 '15 at 21:45
  • Both of the sentences are the same - am I missing something? Are you trying to understand the ambiguity of one sentence with two possible meanings? – ColleenV parted ways Feb 2 '15 at 22:35
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As StoneyB said, it's all in the context. If a customer near your table at a restaurant learns over and says "you may slurp your soup loudly", and with a particularly harsh tone of voice, you might consider it rude.

'May' is like any other words-- when written without context (like that), it's impossible to tell. When the word is spoken, you may be able to tell by the speaker's tone of voice (is it polite, or is it rude?)

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While I agree that context is important, I do not believe it is always external context. Without an external context to indicate otherwise, I would assume the second sentence is what was meant, not the first.

The reason why is that, at least in my variety of English, "may" generally defaults to its permissive sense if possible. Since "slurp" is an action, and one can conceivably be given permission to "slurp," the permissive sense makes the most sense. In order to convey the possibility sense, I would use "might," or, more likely completely recast the sentence, such as "Be careful not to slurp your soup."

Examples for when "may" cannot default to its permissive sense would be in such constructions as "may [not] be," "may [not] need," or even "may [not] want."

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  • Lots of English usage is ambiguous and completely relies on context. Use of the word might in the first sentence would make it less so. – Mazura Feb 3 '15 at 1:57
  • I agree - I cannot read the OP's sentence with the first meaning. To me "may" is always permissive. – xorsyst Feb 3 '15 at 11:35
  • Try a different sentence: "You may be tired in the morning." Do you have permission to be tired, or are you up late at night? Or "Drivers may drift across the road." Permission or warning that the road's pretty badly marked? – A.Beth Feb 3 '15 at 15:39
  • I see what you mean @A.Beth, but to me both those sentences sound just weird. I would expect the use of might, not may. – xorsyst Feb 4 '15 at 10:01
  • @A.Beth "May be" is one of my exceptions. "May drift" is not, but it is something that is usually unintentional, and thus it would be unusual to be given permission to do so in most contexts. An exception would be in racing, where "drifting" has a different meaning. However, I would generally expect the use of "track" rather than "road" in such a context. – trlkly Feb 4 '15 at 13:53
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The problem comes when people treat isolated sentences as laboratory specimens to be examined like a logic problem.

Language exists for communication, and the communicative intent of any given utterance can usually be fathomed from its context.

May expressing possibility and may expressing permission will occur in unique communicative contexts (including a specific discourse, tone, the relationship between the speaker and hearer, the register the speaker is using, et al.) such that the intended meaning can usually be fathomed. If not, one may ask for clarification, which is a communicative strategy.

Now, was my use of may in the sentence before this one expressing possibility or permission? Only someone with limited abilities in English will pick the unintended meaning. An exception is a bothersome teenager who might pick unintended meanings as a matter of course.

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  • For your example, both meanings can work. – cHao Feb 3 '15 at 11:55

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