The Modal "can" under the microscope

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Mubarak Abdessalami
             The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami


                   There are a lot of people I would like
              to dedicate this humble work to especially
              those who can, but have never been able to
              reach their goals and accomplish what they
              have always dreamt of for a reason or
                    I’d also like to dedicate it to those
              who can’t but they wish they could as well
              as to those who can read between the lines
              and never rush to judge things

               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

 What can I do for you?
 Can I help you?

       It’s already encouraging that “can” is used for offering help.

      In this paper, we’ll try, together, to discover what we miss about this amazing
word and see where its influential dominance over interpersonal communication begins
and where it fades away. What I am talking about, here, is not the noun which refers to
the cylindrical thing we also call a tin, a container or a canister. What I mean is the
mystifying modal auxiliary verb “can”. It is referred to as “modal” because it has a mood.
Funny, No?! Not really; “mood refers to a formally grammaticalized category of the
verb which has a modal function” (*)

       Like other modal verbs, such as “will”, “must”, “may” etc, “can” never takes “to”
for the infinitive so there is no “to can”. It doesn’t take “s” in the third person singular
in the present, either: you cannot say “she cans” for instance. Its negative form is
always “cannot” (standard) contracted into “can’t” for all persons and its past and
conditional is “could”. For you, maybe these clues are not of major importance as you
already know them; however can’s controlling power over meaning in natural language
certainly is. “Can” is able to serve a number of functions and this, in fact, is what counts
the most in our research.

       Generally, “can” is known for its expressing, ability, possibility, request and
permission, but if you look closer and deeper, you’ll realize that there are some other
functions, in natural language, that are actually within this modal verb’s area of
competence; but we rarely take notice of them. However, it is always a matter of
syntax and semantics. We are not here absolutely talking about “linguistic modality”,
“Grammatical mood” or “Categorial Grammars” even though we are not really far-off.
We are rather and simply trying to distinguish the various semantic fundamentals of
“can” within the sphere of spoken -but also of written- communication. On this point
particularly, there might be some mood ambiguity that I need you not to let go without
scrutiny. When it comes to the semantic properties of “Can”, it is not always clear and
detectable in all circumstances; it greatly depends on the way it is used and articulated.
Some messages are not really decipherable because of “can” until they are spoken out
or backed up with supplementary expounding context. Consequently, there are lots of
hidden or blurring meanings which indicate that the common “can”, we all make use of, is
actually hard to find because it belongs to a diffident species.

       “Can” has a special status among modal verbs because it places itself in many
utterances as chief decisive about the meaning, not one meaning actually but various
meanings; often with the valuable help of syllabic emphasis, pitch, tone, pan and
intonation when pronounced; “can” can overpass the other modals in authority over
functional styles of speech.
(1) Joan Bybee & Suzanne Fleischman, “Modality in Grammar and discourse” p. 2

               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

       Before I start, I’d like to draw the readers’ attention that this paper is meant
for non-native speakers of English in the first place. As for native speakers, they use
“can” in their daily interactive communication unpremeditatedly. In natural language,
let’s emphasize that once more, the use of “can” depends greatly on lots of factors
including, context, intonation, tone and emphasis among others. Therefore, the
functions that “can” serve are not generally visible unless they are put under the style-
detector microscope. And that’s what we, together, intend to explore here.

Switch on the microscope
       Let’s first make our way into illustrating the idea. In English there are lots of
modal verbs and they all serve different purposes. However, the modal verb “can” is a
little special for its inconceivable ability to appear in different locations without
disguise but with a different personality and function each time. Its impact is immense.

      Contemplate these sentences and try to find out the impact of “can” in each of
them. I have made them two sets of utterances to facilitate the task.

       In each of the sentences on the left, “can” - be it affirmative, negative or
interrogative - has a specific function to accomplish. Now try to match the sentences
with the labels on the right.

Task I
1.   Can you read this for me, please?                    a Ability
2.   You can have a day off tomorrow.                     b. Asking for confirmation.
3.   Can I use your mobile phone, please?                 c. Inviting
4.   Can we rely on those friends of yours?               d. Asking for permission.
5.   The child can read and write.                        e. Giving permission.
6.   Can you come to my party tomorrow?                   f. Request

Task II
1.   You can’t be hungry. You have just eaten a banana.         a) Inability
2.   You can use my bike if you are late.                       b) Prohibition
3.   You can’t park your can in the alley.                      c) Possibility
4.   She can’t write with her left hand.                        d) Complaint
5.   They can come to the party tonight.                        e) Logical deduction
6.   You can’t do this to me! We had an accord, no?!            f) Offer

As you can see, the same little three-letter-word “can” is used in a multitude of
contexts to serve various goals. It has invaded different linguistic fields in natural
language and has made itself noticeable, needed and useful.
                Task I: 1.f - 2.e. - 3.d - 4.b. - 5.a - 6.c
                Task II: 1.e - 2.f - 3.b - 4.a - 5.c - 6.d

Now let’s mull over these functions and others closely. We’ll deal with them one by one.

              The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

01. Expressing Ability
     “Can” is commonly used to convey or describe the ability to do something. In this
case, “Can” normally means “be able to” , “know how to” or “be capable of”, for example,
       ☺ The ant can carry ten times its own weight.
       ☺ The giraffe can clean its ears with its own tongue.
       ☺ Don’t shout. I can hear you.
       ☺ She can speak Italian.
       ☺ Can you fly a plane?
       ☺ “I can resist everything except temptation”. Oscar Wilde

02. Expressing Inability
      To express inability, “can” is always in the negative form. However, we need to
pay more attention because it also expresses impossibility or even prohibition. That’s
why the context and the way the statement is articulated make the difference. e.g.

1. “I can’t speak Chinese”. This means I am unable to speak Chinese.

2. “You can’t touch your nose with your elbow”. Not only does this sentence express
inability but impossibility as well. It says, “You are not able to touch your nose with your
elbow because it is impossible and nobody else can”.

3. “You can’t sneeze with your eyes open”. (This implies that your inability to sneeze
with your eyes open is because it is impossible and it is experimented.)

4. “You can’t travel abroad without a passport.” The “you” here is more general and it
doesn’t designate one person specifically -who is “you” here- but everybody. In some
other situation, it may express prohibition. For example, at the airport, a passenger
wants to travel abroad but he doesn’t own a passport. The officer saying this wants the
person in question to abide by the law as everybody else does.

       Clearly the diffident nature of “can” is only perceptible when it is used in very
specific plain and clear situations. The meaning will obviously be shaky if not
misinterpreted or misunderstood whenever one or both of context and intonation are

5. “I can’t ride a bike”. Here, the speaker shows his or her inability to ride a bicycle.
Maybe the message implies that the speaker is forced not to ride a bike by an authority
be it a parent or a doctor or someone else. If any changes occur in the body of the
sentence, the sentence will get different or extra meaning, like when “a bike” becomes
“the bike” and so on.

       The most remarkable thing about “can” is that it can leave room for diverse
interpretations, especially if the massage is not reinforced with further explanations or
particular tone. Therefore, the intrinsic value of the modal is first because when it
comes to “can”, we are visibly dealing with disposition modality; meaning the potentiality
that you will do something when you can do it.

               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

03. Expressing Possibility
     “Can” expresses the possibility to do something or the potentiality that
something may take place. “Can” is included here under intrinsic modality.
      ☺ They can call you back in few days time.
      ☺ She can pay us a visit unexpectedly.
      ☺ If you don’t concentrate, you can make mistakes.
      ☺ You can fall down if you are not careful.
      ☺ The conference can be postponed.
These utterances could abruptly express probability once “can” is replaced by “may”.
And this is the intricate amazing thing about root modality in general; they swap roles in
most functions.

04. Asking for permission
      “Can” is used to ask for permission the same way as with “may” but not with any
other modal verb.
      ☺ Can I use your pen, please?
      ☺ Can I close the window, please sir?
      ☺ Can I talk to the manager, please?
      ☺ Can I go out, please?
      ☺ Can I have a look at your photo album?
      ☺ Can we leave now, sir?

05. Granting or declining permission
       “Can” is most recommended when we want to allow someone to do something. This
is almost an utterly exclusive act of “can”.
       ☺ You can use my pen.
       ☺ You can bring your children to the show.
       ☺ You can call me any time.
       ☺ You can’t leave now.

06. Making Requests
       Like the modal auxiliary verb “will”, “can” is also used to make requests. There
are levels of politeness in making requests and “can” always plays the major role.
       ☺ Can you post this letter for me, please? (Polite)
       ☺ Could you possibly post this letter for me, please? (more Polite)
       ☺ Please, can you hand me that folder over there?
       ☺ Can you close the window, please?
       ☺ Can you prepare some tea for the guests, please?
       ☺ Can you leave me alone for a moment, please?

07. Inviting
      “Can” is also suggested when you want to invite someone.
      ☺ Can you come for dinner tonight?
      ☺ Can I invite you to my sister’s wedding ceremony?
      ☺ We are partying this afternoon. Can you join us?"
      ☺ We’re organizing a contest next week. Can you come along with your team?

              The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

       ☺ We are having a party. Can you come and have fun?
       ☺ I'm afraid I can't. I'm busy then.
       ☺ I'm sorry but I can't. I'm going somewhere that day.

08. Asking for confirmation
       Tag questions with “can” are frequently used to make sure something is what you
think it is. “Can” is able to ask for confirmation in many question structures, though. You
generally seek a confirmation of ability, possibility or else.
        ☺ You can drive the truck, can’t you?
        ☺ We can trust him, can’t we?
        ☺ He can come tomorrow, can’t he?
        ☺ Can he be right?
        ☺ Can she rely on him?

09. Expressing Prohibition
       Prohibition is commonly expressed by means of “mustn’t” because this modal verb
is bossier and more suitable for this function particularly; however, “cannot” does the
same when the allusion is clear: When something is against the norms or the law, we say,
     ☺ “You cannot park your car in the alley.” (as nobody does because it is illegal or
         forbidden by the law)
     ☺ “You can’t smoke here.” implies that nobody is allowed to do so.
     ☺ “You can’t have more than one ticket. “ ( regulations say one ticket per person)
     ☺ You can’t have access to this facility without a written authorization.
Such constructions may also be used in expressing impossibility. Most of these
prohibitions are not expressed verbally but through signs, like ‘NO SMOKING” etc

10. Complaining
      “Can” is rarely noticed or considered as a vehicle of complaint expressions except
for some specific situations like:
       ☺ I cannot be treated this way!
       ☺ This can’t happen to me.
       ☺ You cannot do this to me.
       ☺ How can it always be my fault!
       ☺ They can’t prevent me from doing my duty.
       ☺ Can’t you see that I’m busy?
       ☺ I’m sorry to say this, but you can’t throw your empty bottles in my balcony.

11. Making Offers
      “Can” is the most suitable modal verb for making offers par excellence.
Nevertheless, one has to pay attention because there is quite a slight uniformity
between using “can” for offer and for permission.
      ☺ Can I help you?
      ☺ What can I do for you?
      ☺ Is there anything I can do for you?
      ☺ You can use my bike if you need it.
      ☺ They can use my desk if they like.

               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

       ☺ I can help you with your homework if you want.
       ☺ You look tired. You can take my seat.
       ☺ It’s all right thanks. I can manage that alone!

12. Logical deduction
        When it comes to inference, conclusion or logical necessity, “must” is used for
positive deductions whereas “can’t” is used for negation or for what can be termed
“logical impossibility”. This is, most probably, the only instance where “can’t” is the
opposite of “must”. We use “must” to make affirmative logical deductions, like in
     Look at his luxurious car. He must be rich
     The boy is pale and he coughs all the time. He must be sick.
     She came from France. She must speak French.
     They left two hours ago. They must be there by now.

On the other hand “can’t” is used to make negative logical deductions. We use “can’t” to
say that the conclusion from given premises is the most improbable.
       ☺ That man has a luxurious sport car. He can’t be needy.
       ☺ He doesn’t know how to fix the car. He can’t be the mechanic.
       ☺ Johnny can’t do that; he has been out of town for weeks now.
       ☺ It can’t be true. The source of information is unreliable.
       ☺ He says he is travelling abroad by bike. He can’t be serious.
       ☺ It cannot be correct.

“Can” is mostly used to express our judgements of events effectively. We use “can’t”
particularly to make inferences like
   A. Is it Nadia who is making that deafening noise outside?
   B. No! It can’t be Nadia. She is still in bed.

   A. Look! The vase is broken. It must be the cat.
   B. No, it can’t be. The cat doesn’t like to hang around here.

13. Feelings
                “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
                My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
                According to my bond, no more nor less.” (*).

This is what crosses my mind when I wanted to talk about “can” expressing feelings. It
looks a little hard to express true Love, doesn’t it? Cordelia, in Shakespeare’s tragedy
play: King Lear, couldn’t profess her love for her father like her sisters because she
believes that there’s no bargaining in emotions. The matter of sincere feelings is beyond
words. She even styles that this way
                 “… I am sure my love’s
                 More ponderous than my tongue” (*)
Still, apart from this philosophical stand, feelings can be displayed and spoken through
(*) Shakespeare, William : King Lear - [ Cordelia - Act I, sc. 1 -]

              The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

       “Can”, among other modal verbs, is an active component of our language when it is
matter of expressing emotions, feelings or attitudes. You cannot find better word than
“can” to display your disappointment, surprise, impatience and determination to name
only a few. Therefore,

13. a/ Disappointment or Surprise
      When you are disappointed or surprised, “can” is always there to assist you to
show that openly.
      ☺ I can't believe it!
      ☺ How can this be?!
      ☺ This can't be happening!
      ☺ It can’t be true! No way!
      ☺ I can’t imagine your grandfather climbing up that high tree.
      ☺ I can't believe how much your daughter has grown!
      ☺ I can't believe it's been a year since we last met?
      ☺ She finally got married. We can hardly believe it's true.

13. b/ Showing impatience
       Showing impatience doesn’t escape “can”. You can use “can” to express your being
impatient about something or about doing something.
       ☺ I can hardly wait until I meet her.
       ☺ I can’t wait until I get my diploma.

13. c/ Showing Determination
       You can also use “can” to show that you are resolute and resolved about fixing
and settling a goal.
       ☺ If somebody is to lose, it can't be me.
       ☺ I cannot fail this time.
       ☺ Yeah, I can do it whatever it takes.
       ☺ I can apply for that job as many times as it requires.
       ☺ I can’t stop trying as long as I live.

13. d/ Giving instructions.
      Giving instructions is also a “boss” job that the modal “can” is able to effectuate.
      ☺ When water boils, you can pour some in the teapot.
      ☺ You can fix the gate after painting the fence.
      ☺ You finish the report first, and then you can type it and put it on my desk..

13. e/ Senses.
        “Can” is perhaps the most suitable modal auxiliary to be used with 'see' 'hear'
'feel' 'smell' and 'taste'
        ☺ Without my glasses I can’t see well.
        ☺ I can hear them coming.
        ☺ It is so chilly here that I can’t feel my feet.
        ☺ I can smell burning.
        ☺ Stop shivering! Anyone can feel your nervousness!

               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

14. Suggesting
     “Can” amazingly shifts in function from asking for permission to suggesting by
just replacing “I” with “we”.
       ☺ Can we take a walk after the movie session?
       ☺ Can we start making plans right now?
       ☺ Can we go to the cinema tonight?

15. Idioms & phrasal verbs

Can’t help: not be able to control or stop something.
- “I can’t help falling in love with you.” (Sung by Elvis Presley, Ingrid Michaelson, UB40)
- “We all know Nadia is nosy, but she can’t help it”.
- Johnny: “I wish you’d stop snoring?”
   Deborah: “I can't help it. I wish I could, too.”
- “I have a test tomorrow. So, I can’t help but go and cram for it”.

Can’t stand: be unable to tolerate, don’t like.
- “I can’t stand the rain” (A song by Ann Peebles)
- “She can't stand people with no sense of humour”.

Can’t bear: be unable to tolerate, dislike.
- “She can’t bear living far from her parents”
- “I can’t bear eating the same meal daily”
- “I can't bear the thought of doing the same task again”

Can’t put up with: not able to tolerate, unable to endure more.
- I can't put up with my roommate.
- I can't put up with the children’s noise anymore.

Can’t afford: not to have money enough to do something,
- “They can’t afford the money for the wedding party.”
- “I can't afford a new car soon.”
- “My parents can't afford to pay for my studies.”

Can’t abide: not be able to tolerate, accept
- “Dishonesty is one of the things I cannot abide”
- I cannot abide living in this town.
- I cannot abide nasty arrogant people.

Can’t stomach: dislike, not be able to endure,
- “She cannot stomach the sight of blood”
- The one thing I cannot stomach is walking the dog.

Can’t resist: can’t fight back temptation or urge to do something,
- “She just can’t resist buying jewellery”
- “The dish looks so delicious that I can’t resist tasting it”

Can/can’t handle: be able/unable to manipulate, manage, bear or deal with

               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

- I’m tired; I can’t handle it any more.
- I can’t handle being unemployed for a long time.
- Leave this one to me. Don’t worry; I can handle it.

       Moreover, we can frequently hear some more idiomatic expressions like “can't
think straight”, “just can't win”, “can't take eyes off someone or something”, “can’t
hear oneself breathe”, “can do without” and so on and so forth.

        Because of all this and more, “can” may generate ambiguity and confusion or even
an unanticipated meaning. So in order for speakers to make themselves clear, conveying
easily decipherable meanings, they need to rely greatly on the context and certain
levels of tone effects.

       In this regard, I think most of you have seen the science fiction action movie “I,
Robot” (2004) starring Will Smith. One scene particularly in the movie gave “can” a
particular power. It is the interrogation scene where Detective Spooner (Will Smith)
interrogates Sonny (the robot).

Detective Del Spooner: Robots don't feel fear. They don't feel anything. They don't
eat, they don't sleep-

Sonny: I do. I have even had dreams.

Detective Del Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you.
You are just a machine, an imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot
turn a... canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

Sonny: Can you ? (*)

        “Can” in sonny’s question suddenly turns magical. It is not innocent at all. It
doesn’t seek to know if Detective Spooner can write a symphony or turn a canvas into a
beautiful masterpiece. On the contrary, it has demolished the presumption that a human
being -any human being- can write a symphony or can turn a canvas into a beautiful
masterpiece. It is true that robots can’t do any of those things; still, the detective who
is a human being can’t either. Sonny’s “Can you?” unexpectedly makes the whole
Spooner’s allegations mere fallacies.

       By the way, detective Del Spooner call Sonny, “canner”. Yes, it has nothing to do
with our talk maybe; but still there is a “can” in it.

(*) I, Robot, 2004, 115 mns 20th Century Fox studio American movie, directed by Alex Proyas,

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              The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

16. Doubt OR confusion
       “Can’t” is generally used with “tell” to show it clear that the speaker is either not
sure or he is confused or bewildered about an issue or an event.
       ☺ I can’t tell if she will come.
       ☺ I can’t tell which is the most suitable for you.
       ☺ I can’t tell if he is sincere about giving us a hand.
       ☺ I can’t tell if she really loves me.
       ☺ She can’t tell if the boy is happy or not.

17. Asking for direction
       There are many ways to ask for direction and using “can” is one of them.
       ☺ "Can you tell me the shortest way for getting to the airport?"
       ☺ “Excuse me sir! Can you show me the way to the petrol station, please?”
       ☺ “Could you please tell me where the museum is?”
       ☺ “Can you tell me how to get to the post office, please?”
       ☺ “Can you give me directions to the nearest bakery, please?”
       ☺ “Excuse me! How can I get to the nearest bus stop, please?”

18. Asking for clarification
      We have previously talked about “can” used to ask for confirmation. In the same
regard it can be used to ask for clarification or to ask for clarification for good
understanding. The only particular thing about this sort of style is that “can” is better
changed into “could”. With “could” you are more polite?
      ☺ Can you repeat that, please?
      ☺ Could you repeat, please?
      ☺ I didn’t get the last part; can you elaborate on it?
      ☺ I’m sorry; can you say that again, please?
      ☺ I don’t understand. Can you clarify that, please?
      ☺ What do you mean by that? Can you be more explicit?
      ☺ Can you explain what you mean by brain gain?
      ☺ Can you give examples, please?
      ☺ I wonder if you could say that in a different way.
      ☺ Can you put it differently, please?
      ☺ What are you talking about? Can you be more specific, please?
      ☺ I didn’t follow you. Can you say that again, please?
      ☺ I didn’t get that. Can you make yourself clear?
      ☺ I can’t understand the last part.

19. Agreeing and disagreeing with an opinion.
“Can” could make it simple and more practical for one to agree or disagree with a point
of view.
       ☺ I can't agree more.
       ☺ I can’t argue with you on that

                                           - 11 -
               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

      ☺ I'm afraid I can't agree with this idea.
      ☺ I suppose this idea cannot be implemented.


A. Can you tell what “can” is used here to express.

        They can put you up.

Does it express ability?
- They are able to accommodate you because they have plenty of vacant rooms.
Or does it express possibility?
- It is possible that they accommodate you if they get to know you well or for other

B. What does this mean to you?

        I can’t understand.

1. It is difficult for me to understand anything.
2. This is a little hard for me to understand what you are saying.
3. I am confused by what has happened.
4. Because this is unusual or strange, I can’t understand (it).
5. Understanding is a handicap for me. (I am slow. I can’t understand no matter how
hard you try to make me.)

      More than that, “can” is highly sensitive to its surrounding context. It is easily
affected by any words added or omitted in a construction. See if “can” here expresses
the same thing:

   1.   I can play the guitar at the party if they invite me to.
   2.   I can play the guitar everywhere I go.
   3.   I can play the guitar at the party.
   4.   I can play the guitar, can’t I?
   5.   I can play the guitar.

       This group of sentences keeps the basic focus “I can play the guitar”; however,
the few words added or changed here and there force can to bear a completely
different function in each sentence. Here is the list of functions “can” expresses in
each of the above sentences.

   1.   Conditional
   2.   Permission
   3.   Possibility
   4.   Confirmation.
   5.   Ability

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              The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

C. Here is another statement,
      “Well, I've had enough; I can't put up with this situation any further”.

Does it express …
     a. inability?
     b. impossibility?
     c. complaint? OR
     d. prohibition?

D. Look at this one,
                       - Oh! I can see now!

This sentence can have two distinct meanings
     1. I am able to use my eyes to see (again)
     2. I understand now.

       Most of the time it is not evident that the meaning of a discrete sentence with
“can” in written communication - especially - is easily graspable. We always need to be
informed about the global context in which it is used. People usually overlook those little
differences to assume that it means what they want it to mean and this premeditated
attitude towards vague messages creates a lot of misunderstanding of course.
Therefore; much prudence is dearly needed here for sometimes one structure can have
more than one functional meaning particularly in discrete sentences like this one,

E. John Doe didn’t say anything else. Can you infer what he wanted to say?

                       - John Doe: “I can speak.”

       Here, the meaning is completely lost in the mess of the reader’s moods,
impressions and interpretations. Each one of us will understand it the way it pleases and
suits him better. The meaning of the sentence is ultimately mere guesswork.
1. Does John Doe want to say that he is capable of speaking again (after being dumb,
aphasic or speech-impaired for a long time or after a chirurgical operation for instance),
2. Or does he say it is possible that he will declare something like when testifying in a
court (spoken in a certain way this sentence may suggest a sort of threat or blackmail).
3. Or does the statement imply that John Doe has finally got the permission to speak
after being forbidden to do so for a certain time?

      So here, all these readings are acceptable and valid as far as there are no
further precisions or practical information added to dissipate the ambiguity.

4. Suppose John Doe chooses to add “now” to his statement, suddenly most of the
suppositions above collapse at once.

       The question persists. Suppose that “can”, without assistance from accentuation,
intonation, explanation or else, is used in a separate statement. How can we make sure
we have really understood the message? Can we be sure if it is making allusion to ability,

                                              - 13 -
               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

possibility, prohibition, impossibility, inability, complaint, request, suggesting, asking for
and giving permission, giving instructions, showing determination or else? The answer is:
“We simply can’t.”

       Now! Can we shout victory we have at last tamed this wayward modal auxiliary
verb? I guess not, yet. It is still very early for that now. There is much work to do to
be able to unveil all the secrets of this powerful mysterious diffident modal, “can”.

F. Here is an exercise which seems difficult and has to be done. What am I saying
when I tell you…
                       “You can do it”
1. You are able to do it.
2. You know how to do it
3. You are allowed to do it. You have permission.
4. I encourage you to do it. So, go on!
5. It is possible that you can do it if we have enough time for that.
6. All of the above.

G. Before I close, I’d prefer to leave you with this medley of statements to examine
and try to see if we have exhaustively studied this modal verb “can”. I’ll let you deepen
and intensify the research to check how far this modal verb can go with its influence on
our speech. Here, you’ll encounter other functions that “Can” would never miss for
anything in the world of interpersonal communication, like declining to give an advice,
showing contempt, expressing impossibility, expressing fear, lack of certitude and so on.

   Can you spare me a moment of your precious time, please?
   What more can I say?
   There is nothing I can do
   I can’t help being worried by the way she behaves.
   For my friends, I can truly make a difference.
   I don't think they can repair that car.
   She can't possibly make the pizza.
   I wish I could suggest something, but I can't
   I'm afraid I can't really help you. I have the same problem myself.
   Interviews can be his worst nightmare.
   I just can’t make it.
   Step aside son. This is tough for you. Daddy can handle it.
   I am positive he can handle this type of problems.
   I can barely handle this any more.
   Excuse me. Can you point me to the nearest store?"
   Excuse me. Can you give me simple directions to the police station?
   I can see what you mean.
   I can’t say either way for sure.
   I can vouch for that.
   I can't be so sure about that.
   I can see that you have reached the end. So please, don’t give up!

                                            - 14 -
               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

       Undoubtedly our microscope has exerted a great effort to zoom and to bring
close enough the maximum of details in the body of linguistic constructions wherein the
multifunctional modal verb “can” is the pivot. The most surprising thing about “can”, all
the same, is the incredible fact that it is the most frequently used word in our daily
discourse. You will be surprised, maybe, to know that most of the examples provided in
this paper are either song titles or verses in songs. This, by itself, is an incontestable
solid proof that “can” is not to be underestimated as it has the power to render
communication stiff without it. It is ubiquitous and we must admit it. I can prove it
once more through this assortment of quotes.

*/ “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do
something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I
can do.”
                                                                           Helen Keller

*/ “Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.”
                                                                              Kahlil Gibran

*/ “If you can dream it, you can do it”.
                                                                                  Walt Disney

*/ “I don't mind living in a man's world as long as I can be a woman in it”.
                                                                               Marilyn Monroe

*/ “The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.”
                                                                      Henry David Thoreau

*/ “I can live without money, but I cannot live without love”.
                                                                                 Judy Garland

*/ “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”
                                                                    Martin Luther King, Jr.

*/ “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right”.
                                                                               Henry Ford

*/ “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”
                                                                                 John Wesley

*/ “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying”.
                                                                          Michael Jordan

*/ “It is one of the beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely help
another without helping himself.”
                                                               Ralph Waldo Emerson

                                            - 15 -
               The Modal Verb « can » under the microscope - Abdessalami

       I hope the employed microscope lenses were diaphanous and sharp enough to
magnify and disclose some of the secret marvels of this tiny little three-letter-word,


1.   Shakespeare, William: King Lear - (New Revised Edition) Signet Classic 1987.
2.   S. Winter & P. Gärdenfors, Linguistic Modality as expressions of social power
3.   Palmer, F. R., Mood and Modality, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986 (2nd edition 2001).
4.   Andrew Salter, Conditioned Reflex Therapy p:58
5.   Günter Radden and René Dirven, Cognitive English Grammar. John Benjamins, 2007
6.   Bybee, J. L., Modality in Grammar and Discourse, John Benjamins publishing company.
7.   Singh, M.P Quote Unquote A handbook of famous quotations Lotus Press, New Delhi 2006
8.   Wikiquote, I, Robot, [,_Robot_(film)#Dialogue]


                                          - 16 -

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