I'm Italian and live in Italy, where books on English are often odd, grammatically speaking....
For instance, in those books you can find a rule about the negative forms of "may" and "can" saying that "cannot" indicates something sure (you cannot swim = you are not able or not allowed to swim at all), while "may not" just indicates something negative as possible (you may not swim = it's not necessary you swim).

Yesterday I found another book saying the opposite, however. "Use "may not"/"must not"/"cannot" for prohibition. Examples: a) Unauthorized personnel may not enter. b) He must not forget. c) You cannot go yet".

Now, I'd understand the sentence a) as meaning that perhaps unauthorized personnel doesn't enter but may enter too....

For prohibition, I'd put: "Unauthorized personnel is not allowed/is not permitted/must not/cannot enter".

Am I wrong?
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Comments  (Page 4) 
Every modal verb in English can operate in past, present and future situations. Modals carry modal meaning into sentences, they do not carry tense.

I think this needs a little more explanation. Can you give examples of modals, which do not carry tense, operating in past, present, and future situations?
I'd be particularly interested in the kind of constructions you envision which use "will" or "may" in the past, just to name a few, because I'm having trouble imagining the sort of thing you have in mind.

[1] Mr P can't provide an answer for his statement for the very simple reason that his statement was false.

Mr P: [2]... , I'm happy to err with all the dictionaries in the world.

JT: It's perplexing indeed, why anyone would want to make this their guiding principle.

[1] I might as well say 'JT hasn't provided an answer to my was/were point'.

[2] You left out the important part: 'On a more practical level, I'm happy to err with all the dictionaries in the world'.

If all the dictionaries in the world say one thing, and JTT says another, that's doesn't mean JTT isn't 'right'. Nonetheless, I question whether 'right' has any practical value, in such a situation.

Your quarrel is essentially with my definition of the words 'same' and 'verb'. We seem to differ. But I doubt whether anyone's going to lose any sleep over that.

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CJ: Are we sure? I think we've had this factoid drilled into us so long by prescriptive grammarians that we have ended up believing it. Leaving out the "We are permitted" interpretation of "We may", to me "We might go ..." and "We may go ..." do not differ at all in certainty. "may" just belongs to a slightly higher register in this context.

JT: Yes, completely sure, Jim. Groups of children queried individually were able to discern that 'might' meant a smaller chance than 'may'. Adults too, were able to discern the difference although not as well as children.

Countless reputable grammar sources [and some not so reputable ones] point out that 'may' expresses a greater certainty than 'might'.

You're getting your epistemic and deontic modals mixed up. When we use modals in an epistemic [certainty] capacity, there are no effects related to register.

Is 'should' of higher register than 'must' or 'may' or 'might'. The epistemic meaning of the modals relates to certainty and certainty only.

1. He must be there. // 2. He should be there. // 3. He may be there. // 4. He might be there.

None of these can be paraphrased to give a sense of politeness meaning because that deontic [social] sense is absent when modals are used to discuss certainty.



Similarly, "May I express ..." and "Might I express ..." also mean the same thing to me. In this case, it is the "might" which belongs to a slightly higher register.

JT: You have to be careful that you don't confuse overall meaning with modal nuance.

"Can/Could I express ... " mean the same thing too; the effect is the same. But the modal nuance is different.


CJ: I think a more interesting discussion might / may involve an attempt to understand why this change of relative register works as it does. Is it because one is a statement and the other a question?

JT: No, clearly both, "May/Might I express ..." are questions as shown by S-V inversion. With "May/Might I express ..." though, we enter the area of deontic or social modal use. Notice how the "level of certainty" meaning has vanished.

But social/deontic meanings derive from modal certainty meanings. 'Might' is slightly higher register, it's more polite precisely because it occupies a lower certainty meaning than 'may'.

May I borrow a pen? = Is there a small to good chance that I can borrow a pen?

Might I borrow a pen? = Is there a miniscule to small chance that I can borrow a pen?

'should', with its stronger certainty meaning than 'may' is used to state some stronger social meanings.

'must', with the highest certainty meaning is used to state some of the strongest social meanings.
'No, clearly...'

'You have to be careful...'

'Completely sure...'

You sound a little prescriptivistic to me, JT.

Fortiter, I should have said this earlier: unfortunately we're unable to move the tail of a thread to a new thread, once it gets away from the original question.

So apologies for the lengthy and slightly off-piste discussion that has followed your very interesting questions!

I wanted to keep my "silence vow", but I'm not a monk after all....

Your "quarrel" is very, very interesting for a foreigner like me, because it is as helpful as your theoretical explanations in another level.

A. I'd say that can and could are the same verb following an irregular conjugation (a. same basical meaning: I can speak = when I was a child I couldn't speak very well, 2. same origin: see German koennen (=can) and koennte (= could, where German "t" is softened in English "d"), 3. in could you can see final "d" related to the usual ending -ed of past tense even). In italian we don't think that "possa" "potrebbe" or "potei" are different verbs not related with their infinitive "potere" (=can/may) just because they differ so much from their basic form ("potere" I repeat). Every language has irregular verbs. I don't think you believe "thought" is another verb from "think". Of course in the two forms meaning somehow changes. In what sense tough?....

B. I think may and might are (I feel you are about to hate me...) ... yes, the same verb following an irregual conjugation (a. same basical meaning: May I say my opinion? = Might I say my opinion? Of course the level of politeness has changed but is that what I call as a word meaning? Some meaning has somehow changed. In what sense tough?... b. same origin: the old "mahen" (hence may might) is a verbal root well known that - who knows why - has created irregular forms always and in every language it was accepted. German "magen" and Slavonic "mogu" (same root and meaning) give birth in their linguistic families to very different forms (not different verbs) and every form has a specific use and ... "meaning", so to say. Mag - mozheti (I don't have diacritic, so I use transliteration...) - moguli - maeg mean always "may" but for different purposes or contexts. A Croat doesn't think moguli and mozheli are really different verbs even if he will never use indifferently the two forms.....

Thanks again for everything, every reply of each of you.
Just one thing.
Don't kill me, please!.....
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No need for silence, Fortiter! There's plenty of room round the table. Especially when you have Croat modals to offer. We rarely see them here, sadly.

I believe JTT's position is that because 'might' and 'may' are used in different situations, they 'mean' different things and are therefore different verbs.

I believe the rest of us would politely disagree.

JTT's position is perfectly acceptable so long as one redefines the word 'verb' to encompass his position.

On the other hand, CJ and I have both raised objections that JTT hasn't yet had a chance to answer. It may/might be that his answers to those objections will cast new light on the whole subject.

I look forward to reading further postings on this thread.

MrPedantic'I couldn't swim any further, so I drowned.'
The quoted sentence is semantically odd. If a person has drowned, how can he/she speak any longer?
If you had drowned, you'd be dead now.
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Surely you've heard of people who come back from the dead and speak to the living. Emotion: smile