I have found a sentence that goes like this: "Serenity may be the name of the company, but it doesn't describe the company."

Someone translated this sentence to my language as if "may be" meant there was a possibility that Serenity was the name of the company (and a possibility that it wasn't), but I feel like the sentence really means "While Serenity is the name of the company, it doesn't describe the company".

Is there a specific name (akin to "non-continuous verb" or "inclusive or") for this usage of "may be"?

I want to be able to say "This sentence is using a [...], so the correct translation would be...", chere [...] might be something like "comparative may" or "comparative auxiliary".

  • 1
    It's what's called an "epistemic" sense of may. All modal verbs have two kinds of meaning: one is called "epistemic" and has to do with logic and probability: He may not be home yet; He must be stuck in traffic; This can't be the place. The other is called "deontic" and has to do with social permission and forbiddance: You may attend the ball, but you must be home by midnight; She should do that anyway; _Will you or won't you? Jun 2 at 0:03
  • @JohnLawler I would ask why you didn't post that as an answer if it weren't for the fact that epistemic describes a wider range of meanings (logic, probability) than the one I'm looking for.
    – Zachiel
    Jun 2 at 0:12
  • @JohnLawler Your examples of epistemic senses seem to be suppositions that might or might not be true. But in the OP's example, it's a statement of fact.
    – Barmar
    Jun 2 at 0:44
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    No, it's a presupposition of fact. That's a pragmatic phenomenon, not a syntactic one. The construction as presented presupposes that Serenity is the name of the company, and that's not asserted -- it's background information that has to be accepted. Jun 2 at 2:07
  • 1
    This is like be that as it may: I can agree that Serenity is the company name, but there’s still this other matter... Jun 2 at 2:21

1 Answer 1


In the terminology of Huddleston & Pullum (2002), this is the concessive may. This is a case of pragmatic strengthening, since "may" here is not being used to indicate that the statement could be false, as it is in sentences like "He may have left it downstairs." (There are also other non-epistemic sense of may, like the deontic one in "You may leave if you want.")

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    Perhaps add their example, for clarity: It may be expensive, but it’s worth every penny. = I concede that it is expensive... Jun 2 at 2:09
  • @TinfoilHat How about It's expensive, but it’s worth every penny or Serenity is the name of the company, but it doesn't describe the company? Don't these have a similar concessive meaning?
    – JK2
    Jun 2 at 3:19
  • This answer is undoubtedly correct but could use a bit more explanation and possibly a more detailed example indicating what it implies.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 2 at 9:24
  • 1
    Yes; a paraphrase is 'Yes, Serenity is the name of the company, but it's a misnomer." Jun 2 at 11:42
  • 3
    @JK2 — Isn’t the concessive part in your example after the but rather than before? Jun 2 at 13:22

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