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Two puzzles about ability can

Abstract

The received wisdom on ability modals is that they differ from their epistemic and deontic cousins in what inferences they license and better receive a universal or conditional analysis instead of an existential one. The goal of this paper is to sharpen the empirical picture about the semantics of ability modals, and to propose an analysis that explains what makes the can of ability so special but that also preserves the crucial idea that all uses of can share a common lexical semantics. The resulting framework combines tools and techniques from dynamic and inquisitive semantics with insights from the literature of the role of agency in deontic logic. It explains not only why the can of ability, while essentially being an existential modal operator, sometimes resists distribution over disjunction and interacts with its duals in particular and hitherto unnoticed ways, but also has a tendency to license free choice inferences.

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Thanks to three anonymous L&P referees as well as to audiences at the workshop on Inquisitiveness Below and Beyond the Sentence Boundary, the University of Chicago, the University of Dubrovnik, the 2018 Central APA, and the Martin-Luther-University of Halle-Wittenberg for comments and discussion. David Boylan and Paul Portner provided detailed and constructive written comments that proved to be invaluable in improving this manuscript. Special thanks also to Melissa Fusco, Jeroen Groenendijk, Jeff Horty, Johannes Hübner, Matt Mandelkern, and Floris Roelofsen for illuminating discussions. The usual disclaimers apply.

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Willer, M. Two puzzles about ability can. Linguist and Philos 44, 551–586 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-020-09296-6

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Keywords

  • Ability modals
  • Epistemic modals
  • Deontic modals
  • Free choice
  • Dynamic semantics