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How would you express the probability that it will happen in percentages? He can get a laptop. He could get a laptop. He may get a laptop. He might get a laptop. (Do they all express a fifty-fifty chance, or are you more certain when you say "can" or "could"?
Jan 25, 2016 7:54 AM
Answers · 6
Don't expect precision. Here are some shades of meaning as I understand them (I'm a native U.S. speakers). "He can get a laptop." This means he has the ability to get a laptop. For example, he has enough money. We would not be talking about whether he is able to get a laptop unless we believe that he wants to get a laptop. Therefore, to me, "He can get a laptop" means "he is able to" and "he wants to" and therefore I expect him to get one, probability much higher than 50/50. "He could get a laptop." To me, this suggests that there are alternatives. He has the ability to get a laptop, but there are other choices he could make. He could decide to get a tablet or a desktop computer instead. It is quite likely that he will get some kind of computer, but maybe only a 50/50 chance that it will actually be a laptop. The uncertainty is not about his ability. The uncertainty is what he will choose to do. "He may get a laptop." To me, this expresses general uncertainty. Again, maybe 50/50, but the reasons for the uncertainty are less clear. I don't know as much about the situation. It could also express permission. This would be unusual but possible. "The university requires every student to have a Windows computer of some kind. Johnny was wondering whether it would be OK for him to get a laptop." "Yes, he may get a laptop." "He might get a laptop." To me this expresses a lower probability than "may." It is actually less than 50/50. It's possible, but I don't expect it. "He might get a laptop, but knowing him I think he will want to install a second hard drive, so I think he will opt for a desktop." But don't overthink it. We don't use these words with any great precision.
January 25, 2016
"Can" says that it is actually possible. "Could" is like... he could get it IF he wanted it, had the opportunity, etc. "May" and "might" are interchangeable, i believe. There is this 50/50 possibiliy that you were talking about.
January 25, 2016
"Can" and "Could" mean similar things in terms of probability. Personally, I think "can" bears a slightly higher 'probability': "I can get you a laptop" vs. "I could get you a laptop" In this case, 'could' implies that you are able to do it, but there is something holding you back. Another way to see the difference is when you say something like: "Of course I can get you a laptop" vs. "Of course I could get you a laptop" The second sentence obviously bears a slightly more negative connotation. If you want to express that sentence with greater probability, it would simply be wiser to stick with: "He probably will get a laptop" "He will get a laptop" "He's likely to get a laptop" "He should get a laptop" - (Should, referring to, he will probably get the laptop, though this sentence can also mean he 'must' get the laptop)
January 25, 2016
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