modal: can only

English Language Learners Asked by Apollyon on August 16, 2020

“Can” can indicate possibility as well as ability. I’m investigating when “can” can indicate possibility.

Is the following use of “can only” correct?

A: John is shouting. Can he be angry?

B: No, he can only be sad, considering how much he has suffered.

One Answer

These sentences work. But you might also phrase them with "could". Both "can" and "could" express possibility, though "could" seems more likely. This seems to be because you are not talking about future possibility, but current (and past) uncertainty. So even though there is no "past tense" meaning, "could" would fit better.

Answered by James K on August 16, 2020

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