“It can be very cold…” vs “It may be very cold…”


It can be very cold in winters.
It may be very cold in winters.

What is the difference between these two sentences?

People say when may is used then it means that it may be cold in winters or it may not be cold in winters. In other words, may means 'not sure'.

So does that mean if can is used then it is 100% sure that it will be cold in winters?


Posted 2015-09-26T16:56:24.927

Reputation: 361

You shouldn't quote a grammatical rule by starting with "People say"; that indicates the rule is almost certainly a zombie, misunderstood and misdescribed. If there is in fact a rule, it should be quoted and the source given. If you're a native speaker, you can say what sounds grammatical to you; that's a rule. If you're not a native speaker, don't bother quoting from your textbook or homework or exam practice. – John Lawler – 2015-09-26T17:02:03.267

1Both mean "sometimes it gets very cold in winter"; why do you think those mean anything different from one another? – tchrist – 2015-09-26T17:02:23.223


The difference between the two is stylistic, if anything. It's an epistemic use of may, meaning 'possible', and an alethic use (or possibly another epistemic use) of can, meaning 'capable of' (or 'possible' is it's epistemic). Modal verbs always have at least two different senses, with different meaning and different syntax.

– John Lawler – 2015-09-26T17:06:56.873

Speaking as someone living in Tropical Southern Minnesota, the two mean essentially the same thing. "May" and "can" have different connotations in other contexts, but mean very near the same here. (But as Brian points out, you should use the singular "winter".) – None – 2015-09-26T17:49:24.787

related: Usage of can vs may

– Mari-Lou A – 2015-09-26T18:16:54.407

Thanks folks for your replies. Another question : What is the difference between the sentence - "Smoking cigarette causes cancer". And "Smoking cigarette can cause cancer" ? I just need to know if the word 'can' is used then does it mean that it is 100% sure that it will cause cancer or does it mean that it may or may not cause cancer ? – None – 2015-09-26T18:57:54.930

You cannot ask a new question in the comments, nor in the original post. Besides there's no guarantee that users will read the comments. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-09-26T19:16:29.497

But, as a comment about another comment, smoking only one cigarette is very unlikely to cause cancer. One would have to smoke many cigarettes. – None – 2015-09-27T01:00:12.030



First of all, most native speakers would most likely use the singular form of winter, as non-count, in either sentence.

There is uncertainty expressed in both.

In the version with can, the uncertainty resides simply in the inherent unpredictability of weather:

It sometimes gets very cold in winter there.

In the version with may, the speaker is expressing additional uncertainty, born of imperfect knowledge of the climate in a place he or she has never wintered:

For all I know, it might sometimes get very cold in winter there.

Brian Donovan

Posted 2015-09-26T16:56:24.927


1I agree (+1). I wonder why someone down-voted. – chasly - reinstate Monica – 2015-09-26T17:16:17.990

1'It can' can be used as a warning about something that is a likely -- based on past knowledge, e.g. "When you go to Russia, take plenty of warm clothes: It can be very cold in winter." 'It may' indicates lack of knowledge, "Is the climate harsh in Patagonia? I don't know -- It may be cold in winter." – chasly - reinstate Monica – 2015-09-26T17:30:56.687

@BrianDonovan : Suppose the sentence is "Smoking cigarette can cause cancer". So does this sentence imply that it is 100% sure that it will cause cancer ? – None – 2015-09-26T18:53:50.503

1@iamRR, I presume you mean cigarettes, plural. Such a sentence would imply a high degree of certainty that in a large population of smokers, smoking will cause cancer in some cases. It does not imply certainty about any individual smoker, however. The uncertainty there is like the normal and inevitable uncertainty about the weather. If the causal link were merely conjectural, if we did not know whether cigarette smoke were carcinogenic at all, but had a hunch it might be, then we might say rather that "Smoking cigarettes may cause cancer." – None – 2015-09-26T19:01:14.503

@Brian Donovan : As you say 'can' expresses uncertainty, so does it mean that in the sentence 'It can be very cold in winter' ,there are some chances that there may be no cold in winter ? – iamRR – 2015-10-17T12:28:06.653


Oddly, you asked a virtually identical question two months ago (Usage of can vs may [duplicate]), and accepted none of the answers. Your earlier question was marked as a duplicate of questions that asked about the distinct uses of 'can' and 'may' when requesting permission...your question then, and now, is not a duplicate of such questions; however, your questions then and now are very similar to each other, and could be considered 'duplicates' (if 'duplicate' is used loosely).

First, you use an anticipatory 'it': rephrasing the examples in the present question more directly (dropping the anticipatory 'it'), they become

Winters can be very cold.

Winters may be very cold.

The rephrasing, perhaps, highlights a distinction between the two statements that might be brought out by the context. On the one hand, the statements might be used to convey virtually identical meanings, that is, the statements might be used and understood interchangeably. On the other hand, and in context, the statements might be used to convey different meanings.

My sense of the distinction in the statements is that 'can' is used to express possibility, and 'may' is used to express likelihood. This sense may be misleading, in that just as 'can' expresses possibility, so 'may' expresses likelihood--but no degree of likelihood is conveyed. So, while "winters can be very cold" and "winters may be very cold" both express the idea that "winters are sometimes very cold", in context the emphasis of the first may be on the possibility of the winters being cold, and the emphasis of the second may be on the likelihood of the winters being cold.


Posted 2015-09-26T16:56:24.927