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It can be very cold in winters.
It may be very cold in winters.

What is the difference between these two sentences?

People say when may is used then it means that it may be cold in winters or it may not be cold in winters. In other words, may means 'not sure'.

So does that mean if can is used then it is 100% sure that it will be cold in winters?

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  • You shouldn't quote a grammatical rule by starting with "People say"; that indicates the rule is almost certainly a zombie, misunderstood and misdescribed. If there is in fact a rule, it should be quoted and the source given. If you're a native speaker, you can say what sounds grammatical to you; that's a rule. If you're not a native speaker, don't bother quoting from your textbook or homework or exam practice. Sep 26 '15 at 17:02
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    Both mean "sometimes it gets very cold in winter"; why do you think those mean anything different from one another?
    – tchrist
    Sep 26 '15 at 17:02
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    The difference between the two is stylistic, if anything. It's an epistemic use of may, meaning 'possible', and an alethic use (or possibly another epistemic use) of can, meaning 'capable of' (or 'possible' is it's epistemic). Modal verbs always have at least two different senses, with different meaning and different syntax. Sep 26 '15 at 17:06
  • Speaking as someone living in Tropical Southern Minnesota, the two mean essentially the same thing. "May" and "can" have different connotations in other contexts, but mean very near the same here. (But as Brian points out, you should use the singular "winter".)
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 26 '15 at 17:49
  • related: Usage of can vs may
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 26 '15 at 18:16
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First of all, most native speakers would most likely use the singular form of winter, as non-count, in either sentence.

There is uncertainty expressed in both.

In the version with can, the uncertainty resides simply in the inherent unpredictability of weather:

It sometimes gets very cold in winter there.

In the version with may, the speaker is expressing additional uncertainty, born of imperfect knowledge of the climate in a place he or she has never wintered:

For all I know, it might sometimes get very cold in winter there.

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    I agree (+1). I wonder why someone down-voted. Sep 26 '15 at 17:16
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    'It can' can be used as a warning about something that is a likely -- based on past knowledge, e.g. "When you go to Russia, take plenty of warm clothes: It can be very cold in winter." 'It may' indicates lack of knowledge, "Is the climate harsh in Patagonia? I don't know -- It may be cold in winter." Sep 26 '15 at 17:30
  • @BrianDonovan : Suppose the sentence is "Smoking cigarette can cause cancer". So does this sentence imply that it is 100% sure that it will cause cancer ?
    – iamRR
    Sep 26 '15 at 18:53
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    @iamRR, I presume you mean cigarettes, plural. Such a sentence would imply a high degree of certainty that in a large population of smokers, smoking will cause cancer in some cases. It does not imply certainty about any individual smoker, however. The uncertainty there is like the normal and inevitable uncertainty about the weather. If the causal link were merely conjectural, if we did not know whether cigarette smoke were carcinogenic at all, but had a hunch it might be, then we might say rather that "Smoking cigarettes may cause cancer."
    – Brian Donovan
    Sep 26 '15 at 19:01
  • @Brian Donovan : As you say 'can' expresses uncertainty, so does it mean that in the sentence 'It can be very cold in winter' ,there are some chances that there may be no cold in winter ?
    – iamRR
    Oct 17 '15 at 12:28
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Oddly, you asked a virtually identical question two months ago (Usage of can vs may [duplicate]), and accepted none of the answers. Your earlier question was marked as a duplicate of questions that asked about the distinct uses of 'can' and 'may' when requesting permission...your question then, and now, is not a duplicate of such questions; however, your questions then and now are very similar to each other, and could be considered 'duplicates' (if 'duplicate' is used loosely).

First, you use an anticipatory 'it': rephrasing the examples in the present question more directly (dropping the anticipatory 'it'), they become

Winters can be very cold.

Winters may be very cold.

The rephrasing, perhaps, highlights a distinction between the two statements that might be brought out by the context. On the one hand, the statements might be used to convey virtually identical meanings, that is, the statements might be used and understood interchangeably. On the other hand, and in context, the statements might be used to convey different meanings.

My sense of the distinction in the statements is that 'can' is used to express possibility, and 'may' is used to express likelihood. This sense may be misleading, in that just as 'can' expresses possibility, so 'may' expresses likelihood--but no degree of likelihood is conveyed. So, while "winters can be very cold" and "winters may be very cold" both express the idea that "winters are sometimes very cold", in context the emphasis of the first may be on the possibility of the winters being cold, and the emphasis of the second may be on the likelihood of the winters being cold.

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