Barbara Vetter – Abilities and the Semantics of ‘Can’

Abstract: The circumstantial use of ‘can’ comprises a spectrum that ranges from possibility (e.g. ‘You can get from London to Berlin in less than two hours’) to ability (e.g. ‘I can play the piano’). Standard accounts of the semantics of ‘can’ in the Lewis/Kratzer tradition start from the possibility end of this spectrum and treat ability as a particular kind of restricted or relative possibility. In this paper I explore the option of starting from the other end, that of abilities, and treating possibility as a kind of extended ability. I offer some reasons for preferring this alternative approach, and sketch how it might be spelled out.

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