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In my paper, I wrote this sentence:

Individual fitness then may or may not project into the population-level demography rates.

Now I started to doubt if it is correct! Because if I look up the meaning of "may not", it is actually a prohibition! So perhaps the "correct" way should be "may or need not"? Or "may or doesn't have to"? Yeah, sounds weird, but that's what you would expect, grammatically.

But I've been looking here in some other questions, and from this it seems like "may or may not" is correct.

So my question is:

  1. Really? Is this correct?
  2. Why? Is it some "inconsistency", an exception, that "may not" in this context means "doesn't have to"? Whereas in other cases it means a prohibition? Is it an exception because "may or may not" reads better?
  • In the context of "may or may not", the "may not" part works more like "might not" than "should not". – Lawrence Sep 30 '19 at 14:04
  • Possible duplicate of Why do they say "may not" for things which people shouldn't do?. See John Lawler's answer on '... modals and their epistemic and deontic meanings ...' and the linked material. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 30 '19 at 14:48
  • @EdwinAshworth definitely not duplicate of that one, but thanks for the link! – Tomas Sep 30 '19 at 16:02
  • How is 'May is a [modal auxiliary verb], and all modals have at least two kinds of meaning -- one kind, called Epistemic /ɛpəs'tɛmɪk/, refers to logical possibility and necessity, e.g. This may be the place means it's possible that this is the place. [<< cf Individual fitness then may or may not project into the ... >>.] The other kind of modal meaning, called the Deontic sense, refers to obligation and permission, and is social, not logical. [A] case of deontic may, which refers to permission -- She may attend the ball, provided she keeps her shoes on all night.' not an answer? – Edwin Ashworth Sep 30 '19 at 16:09
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'May not' is indeed the negation of 'may', but 'may' has several meanings. The two that interest us here are "is permitted"...

You may enter here if you wish

...or 'is possible'

There may be rain tomorrow

In the second case, the 'not' is not negating the possibility, but negating the clause after it. "There may not be rain tomorrow" means that it is possible there there is not rain tomorrow.

In your sentence 'may' is expressing possibility.

Individual fitness may project into the demography rates.

It is possible that individual fitness projects into the demography rates.

Individual fitness may not project into the demography rates.

It is possible that individual fitness does not project into the demography rates.

The sentence states both cases to emphasize that both are possible.

Individual fitness may or may not project into the demography rates.

It is possible that individual fitness projects into the demography rates and possible that it does not.

'May or may not' is correct and has the meaning above.

Note that it is not always possible to determine which meaning of 'may' is intended in a sentence. Grammatically they are often identical, and you have to determine the meaning from context. In this case it makes no sense that 'individual fitness' is prohibited from doing anything.

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  • Thank you for answer! :-) – Tomas Sep 30 '19 at 15:53

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