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The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language , page 184, reads

May is virtually excluded instead of can in water can still get in, partly by the likelihood of it being interpreted epistemically rather than dynamically.

However, I cannot grasp any different effective meaning between both versions.

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    A problem with may is that is often used (and therefore understood) to mean "is allowed to", and so is not appropriate in the example you quote. There is no such problem with can. Might would also work there. – Rosie F Oct 18 '19 at 18:22
  • Contrast "I don't like the look of that roof! Water may get in." with 'The permeability of the membrane is intentional: oxygen may get in. Carbon dioxide may get in. Water may get in.' – Edwin Ashworth Oct 18 '19 at 18:31
  • The german angle helps a bit, as usual, but not terribly so. "mag" has come to mean "to like", perhaps ever has, in a passive aggressive voice approximately "do you may to fix that roof"; the subjunctive form "möchte" has become a lexeme on its own, ca "I'd like", more often in "you might fix that roof". pretty weird. So "water may come in" shouldn't have that subjunctive mood that it has, unless "may" is also a rebased lexeme, from a mood of "make" I guess, with s trace of "mighty power" (Ger mach' vs Macht). just look it up: may – vectory Oct 18 '19 at 18:41
  • "The main distinction between *kunnaną and *maganą is that the former deals with one's own capabilities, whereas the latter indicates ability due to favourable circumstances not under one's control" [wikt] – vectory Oct 18 '19 at 18:43
  • so if I say you may, then it's beyond your control!? You may thank me later for the info! – vectory Oct 18 '19 at 18:45
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This appears to be a case of inadvertant misattribution by the Original Poster. Here is the actual text and its context:

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The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston & Pullum (2002, p. 198)

As can be seen, Huddleston & Pullum are of course saying that such a sentence is perfectly fine. However, they note that we're unlikely to see this kind of sentence with may in a formal academic text. Although may is more formal than can here, get in is a rather informal idiom, and this particular example would be ambiguous with may, because it would likely be interpreted as conveying epistemic instead of dynamic modality.

To see the difference between dynamic and epistemic meanings consider @Edwin Ashworth's examples (one of which modified):

  • Epistemic: I don't like the look of that roof! Water may/might get in. [epistemic deduction]
  • Dynamic: The permeability of the membrane is intentional: oxygen may get in. Carbon dioxide may get in. Water may get in. [engineered dynamic possibility]

Notice that the text says absolutely nothing about deontic modality (i.e. any ideas about permission or anything like that).

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  • Does partly by the likelihood of it being interpreted epistemically rather than dynamically apply only to formal texts then? – GJC Oct 22 '19 at 15:39
  • @GJC No, not at all. But academics like to use very precise unambiguous language. The most important aspect here is get in. And notice that they do not say it is excluded - they say it is virtually excluded. (Which, if you think about it carefully means that it is not entirely excluded.) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 22 '19 at 15:39
  • Thats why I did not include the formality as a factor in my OP. Do native speakers (AmE vs BrE, if it's relevant) at least tend to maintain such a epistemic vs dynamic distinction? – GJC Oct 22 '19 at 15:43
  • @GJC We use may/might/must/could for epistemic modality, but not can. For epistemic modality we do use can't, however. When talking about epistemic modality (for example when making deductions), the opposite of can't is must not can. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 22 '19 at 15:45
  • @GJC "That's why I did not include the formality as a factor in my OP." <-- But that's H&P's main point. You won't find that kind of sentence in formal writing even with more formal may. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 22 '19 at 15:48

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