LINGUIST List 11.451

Fri Mar 3 2000

Sum: "May not"/ British English

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1.>, "May not"/ British English

Message 1: "May not"/ British English

Date: Fri, 03 Mar 2000 17:07:31 +0900
From:> <>
Subject: "May not"/ British English

For Query: Linguist 11.397

Dear linguists,
A week ago I posted the following query to the Linguistlist:
In its epistemic sense, "may not" means "It is possible that ...not...". 
However, I have heard that in British English it can be used in the sense of "
is not certain that ...", as in:
(1) A: Someone is knocking on the door.
B: It must be John.
A: It may not be John. It could be Bill.
Is this true?

Soon after that I received 45 replies. I am grateful to the following people 
for helping me:

Renaat Declerck, Julian Bradfield, Christian Villafana, Karl Reinhardt, Ruth M
. Brend, Justin Watkins, Benjamin Slade, Martha McGinnis, Scott DeLancey, Peter 
Reich, Douglas G. Wilson, John Damon, John Lawler, Mark Mandel, A. F. Gupta, 
A. Rosta, William J. Rapaport, Peter Tan, Earl Herrick, Mark Irwin, Hank Mooney, 
Lance Eccles, Trace Mansfield, Anna Livia, Patrick C. Ryan, Nicole Bazar,
Richard M. Alderson III, Alan Stevens, Paula S. Newman, Heather Bortfeld,
Peter D. Daniels, John F. Thiels, Robert Trammell, James Kirchner, Rick 
McCallister, G. Halliday, Barbara Need, Richard S. Kaminski, Meredith Doran, 
Larry Trask, Laurence Horn, Elena Bashir, Lynne Parmenter, Dom Watt, and Kirk 

The respondents' answers can be devided into the following 3 types:
(1) The 15 respondents said to me that "It is possible that not" and "It is not
 certain that x" are logically equivalent.
(2) The 15 American respondents informed me that American people also use "may
 not" in this context. It seems to me, however, that some of them interpret
 "may not" not as having "It is not certain that x" but as having "It is 
 possible that not".
(3) The 3 British respondents told me that "may not" can be used in this 

In addition to these points, I got interested in the following 3 views:
Laurence Horn let me know that "may not" has only the meaning of "It is possible 
that not". Elena Bashir said to me that "may not" has both "It is possible that 
not" meaning and "It is not certain that X" meaning, but the former is more 
natural. According to Larry Trask, in "may not", "may" is stressed in the sense 
of "It is possible that not" while "not" is stressed in the sense of "It is
not certain that x".

Thank you again.

Kenji Kashino
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