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Please consider:

Jack could get to work earlier.

Is this use of could in the dynamic modality about Jack’s inherent ability, or is this the could of epistemic modality about the speaker’s knowledge about whether it’s possible for Jack to get to work earlier?

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    The inherent ability sense is alethic, not deontic. The deontic usages are about permission, and epistemic ones about logical possibility. Epistemic can is a negative polarity item: *This can be the place. In the right context, that clause could be any of the three. As a standalone utterance, shorn of context, it's ambiguous between deontic (he has/had the necessary permission) or alethic (he has/had the necessary ability). Not epistemic, because there's no negative trigger in this sentence (the than clause of comparatives is negative, but not the compared clause). Jun 22 '14 at 18:41
  • See umich.edu/~jlawler/Modality.pdf for more on English modality. Jun 22 '14 at 18:42
  • I meant to say dynamic ability not deontic. Basically I think could is dynamic as it refers to Jacks ability. I dont understand what you mean by " Not epistemic, because there's no negative trigger in this sentence "
    – avkaapstad
    Jun 22 '14 at 20:21
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    Without context (and ignoring all these techie terms like "dynamic" and "deontic"), I've no idea whether the cited usage represents a complaint because Jack doesn't get to work earlier even though in the opinion of the speaker he should, or a simple statement to the effect that it would be possible for him to start work earlier (for example, if that happened to be necessary at some point in the future). Jun 22 '14 at 21:27
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    ...to put that another way, @avkaapstad, you could have given us a bit more to go on here. Jun 22 '14 at 21:29
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In a non-searchable and potentially ephemeral comment to the original posting, Professor Lawler kindly presented the following answer:

The inherent ability sense is alethic, not deontic.

The deontic usages are about permission, and epistemic ones about logical possibility. Epistemic can is a negative polarity item:

  • *This can be the place.
    [Where the asterisk denotes an ungrammatical form. ―tchrist]

In the right context, that clause could be any of the three. As a standalone utterance, shorn of context, it’s ambiguous between deontic (he has/had the necessary permission) or alethic (he has/had the necessary ability). Not epistemic, because there’s no negative trigger in this sentence (the than clause of comparatives is negative, but not the compared clause).

See umich.edu/~jlawler/Modality.pdf for more on English modality.

I’ve marked this posting Community Wiki because it is John’s answer not my own, and so I deserve no reputation from it.

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Speaker A, sarcastically: "Jack could get to work earlier. Yeah, and monkeys could fly out of my butt next!" Here, the speaker knows that it is not physically possible for Jack to get to work earlier.

Speaker B, who knows Jack only from her friends: "Jack could get to work earlier. Sure, I don't see why he can't."

Without more context, there's no way to know for certain which way the sentence is intended.

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