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I am wondering if the following two sentences have different meanings.

  • I may know where it is.
  • I know where it may be.
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It seems that inflection plays a fairly important role here. –  dotsamuelswan Apr 17 '13 at 20:16
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1 Answer

Well, they're not synonymous, though -- depending on circumstances -- they may well describe the same situation.

  • I may know where it is
    means
    POSSIBLE ((KNOW (I, x) AND LOCATION (IT, x))
    that is,
    It is possible that I know a place that is its location.

  • I know where it may be
    means
    (KNOW (I, x)) AND POSSIBLE (LOCATION (IT, x))
    that is,
    I know a place, and that place may be its location.

The first one makes no assertion except possibility, though it invites an inference of some knowledge; the second asserts direct knowledge but limits it to a possibility only. There are plenty of situations where one might prefer one or the other version, but the reasons would have more to do with misleading or tempting listeners than communication.

Oh, and it is definitely the position of may that causes it. Modals are operators, like quantifiers and negation, and they always have a focus, which is determined partly by placement of the modal, and partly by intonation. In writing, with no intonation, this is more complex and leads to a great deal of ambiguity, often among opposites.

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Pragmatics is important. In speech, the second variant is a common if slightly puzzling (know tends to imply certainty) way of communicating "I've got an idea where it might be." The first is an even more puzzling but not uncommon way of saying the same thing. However, it might rarely be used to give a non-commital answer to a questioner (perhaps awaiting $20 for the information). –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 17 '13 at 21:31
    
Or being put on oath. –  John Lawler Apr 17 '13 at 21:36
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