"Can" to denote probability

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Senior Member
Good afternoon!

I've been trying to figure out if it is possible to use can to denote prediction (i.e. can = it is possible that something will happen) and I failed to see the pattern here: it works fine with some verbs and sounds wrong with others. Here are some exmples:

1a) If you come clean about what you did yesterday, he may forgive you - okay
1b) If you come clean about what you did yesterday, he can forgive you - sounds wrong

2a) Don't go there! They may hurt you! - ok
2b) Don't go there! They can hurt you! - ok ...I think

3a) She may still love you - okay
3b) She can still love you - sounds wrong

4a) Please stay, we may need your help - okay
4b) Please stay, we can need your help - Eww...

5a) Let's pop into this shop, they may have what we need - okay
5b) Let's pop into this shop, they can have what we need - not sure

6a) They may sue you for that - okay
6b) They can sue you for that - not sure

7a) This may hurt a bit - okay
7b) This can hurt a bit - not sure

8a) Who knows, she may listen to YOU - okay
8b) Who knows, she can listen to YOU - not sure

9a) They may come tomorrow - okay
9b) They can come tomorrow - not sure

10a) The witch may cast some dark spell on us - okay
10b) The witch can cast some dark spell on us - not sure

Can anyone, please, explain me how it works (if the verb can even works for probability)?

Thank you in advance!

  • Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    The short answer is that we don't use "can" for probability.

    The nearest we come to it is when we say things like It can be very cold at night, which means It is sometimes very cold at night.


    Senior Member
    English - England
    The British Council explains it as:
    We use may, might and could to say that something is possible, but not certain.
    We use can to make general statements about what is possible.

    If you don’t tie your shoelaces tight enough, they can work loose as you walk.


    Senior Member
    English (northeastern US)
    'Can' in 2b, 6b, 7b, and 10b has to do with the ability (physical, legal, or magical) of someone or something. Whether or not the subject of the verb will in fact exercise that ability is unknown.
    9b: What this means depends on the context.
    'Could' instead of 'can' in 1b, 3b, 4b, 5b, and 8b suggests possibility.
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