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Here is a sentence from a video game:

All know the emperor to be a good and holy man, for he may often be seen in the Temple of the One, making his devotions to the Nine Divines and the Communion of Saints.

I would understand it if it used can often, but may often doesn't currently make much sense to me.

I know that may can signify either permission or possibility, and I guess here it means the latter. Can would mean that the emperor visits the temple often, and may, as far as I understand, adds the author's uncertainty, or ignorance, to the meaning of can (the author doesn't know exactly whether the emperor visits the temple often, but thinks he definitely does once in a while).


Having written all that, I would like to ask: does may often mean that the author thinks the emperor definitely visits the temple, but doesn't know how often he does so?

Also, couldn't this may (compared to can) imply some disrespect for the emperor in terms of his godliness?

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Can would mean that the emperor visits the temple often, and may, as far as I understand, adds the author's uncertainty, or ignorance, to the meaning of can (the author doesn't know exactly whether the emperor visits the temple often, but thinks he definitely does once in a while).

My guess is that may affects not the fact of the emperor's visits to the temple. He does visit the Temple often, being a good and holy man.

May affects your typical Joe's chances of seeing the emperor. He might see the emperor during a service, but on the other hand he might not. Speaking generally, the emperor may often be seen by the public there.

It is often possible to observe the emperor in the Temple, making devotions.

Yes, the modal can could be used in the place of may, and it would even be more natural in modern English.

The use of may is your quote is a bit formal. Let me quote from Quirk et al. (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Unit 4.53, 'May/Might'):

Less commonly, in formal English, may/might is used in the same possibility sense as can/could, a sense which may be distinguished by the label ROOT POSSIBILITY:

'During the autunm, many rare birds may be observed on the rocky northern coasts of the island.' [4]

May in [4] is a more formal substitute for can, and the whole sentence could be paraphrased It is possible to observe...


Here's an interesting Ngram:

enter image description here

It can be seen how 'can often be seen' has been overtaking 'may often be seen'.

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