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This is from the tabletop game Warhammer 40k rulebook:

The turn Marines arrive they may not assault.

I always assumed it means they are not allowed to assault. But the meaning "they may choose not to assault" (as opposed to "they must always assault") would be perfectly legitimate too, as far as game rules go.

So how do you tell whether it limits your choices (not allowed to) or extends them (allowed not to)? How it should be worded if the meaning was "allowed not to"?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

'may not' is only slightly ambiguous in general ("is not allowed" is preferred to "can choose not to"). In this context though, it definitely takes on the "is not allowed" meaning because the negative, "they may assault" was not used.

That is, though the literal meaning is ambiguous, the implication (because of not using the negation) forces the interpretation to be "is not allowed".

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Well put. Technically speaking it's ambiguous, so I probably wouldn't have phrased it that way. But if an opponent in the game tried to justify a play based on the literal interpretation, I'd definitely accuse him of "gamesmanship". –  FumbleFingers Apr 5 '11 at 15:23

"May not" is tricky in this context because it is listed in a set of rules. You should always refer to the rulebook itself for its own uses. If the rulebook does not tell you what to do, find a relevant authority on the game itself.

The English phrase implies that you should not or cannot do whatever comes after the "may not." Rulebooks like to use the phrase "may not" to let players opt out of an action because "cannot" can take the place of "not allowed." Again, without knowing more about the game or its rules, I cannot help with answering this particular context. Feel free to ask about more specific rules interpretations at boardgames.SE or gaming.SE

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I do know what rule means. I am only interested why it is so, and if it is as ambiguous to native English speakers as it is to me. And what wording would mean different thing. Hence I am asking in English.SE –  Sejanus Apr 5 '11 at 16:27
    
@Sejanus: Sure. Part of this site's purpose is to field questions in a way that people searching the site in the future will also find answers to their questions. My answer is geared toward people coming in because of matching a search on Warhammer or rulebook. –  MrHen Apr 5 '11 at 16:36

This is a poorly worded rule. You are correct that both interpretations are possible.

Possible rewordings are:

  • The turn Marines arrive they are not permitted to assault

or

  • The turn Marines arrive, they may choose to assault or not

I would imagine that it is the former that is the case; rules in games (especially battle games such as this) tend to place limits on players' actions, rather than enumerate all of their options (which should be many and varied in such games).

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