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means of the defective verb Can,-Saxon cunnan and German können, to be able. The infinitive, To can, is out of use in modern English, but the Scotch dialect has the substantive Can for ability: “He has no can,” meaning that the man is deficient in power,—that he is unable to do what is requisite.
We cannot too often repeat, that no two words, or expressions, are completely synonymous; but, often, the nice shades of distinction vary with circumstances so as to be appreciable by no general rule, except, what is necessary in all cases, a strict discrimination of the precise idea that we wish to express, with an habitual and critical (not slavish) attention to the practice of the most approved authors. In a general usage, I can walk
is equivalent to I am able to walk, Thou canst walk
Thou art able to
walk, He can walk
He is able to walk, &c.
but we should use the first form in the case of a general assertion, and the second when the question of ability is intended to be particularly kept in view. We shall afterwards have occasion to notice other distinctions.
The Saxon cunnan, in its more direct meaning, signified To know, and Cunning, (which had not then a suspected character,) denoted knowledge in general, and, particularly, that kind which is obtained by a sound judgment from experience. That sort of cunning gave a superiority to its possessors over other minds,-thus adding an etymological confirmation of the aphorism that “ Knowledge is Power."
The imperfect tense Could is dependent, and, in its modern usage, might be properly termed the conditional. It asserts the possession of power at a specified time, but leaves us to enquire the reason why that power was, or is, not exerted.
“ I could have lent you the money yesterday, but I cannot now.”
“ I could even now give you the money, but I will not.”
In the latter example, could appears as a present tense, and yet we could not with propriety write can.
“I can give you the money, but I will not" is a solecism; because the word can denotes unlimited power, which would not be so if I had not the will. Could is truly contingent, for its exertion may be dependent on other circumstances than the will of the speaker, as in the following sentences:
I could sing a good song, if I had not such a bad cold.”
“I could tell you a long story, but, at present, I am too much engaged with other matters.”
The Saxon magan, to be able, was more particularly allusive to physical than to mental power. Mighty is powerful, and might is bodily strength. The English derivative May denotes power to act, whether that power be intrinsic in the actor, or derived from another. May might be by permission, and indeed this is its more usual acceptation,) a circumstance which can never contemplates. When a person says, “ I may walk,” he announces his possession of a power which is left dependent on his will. “I can walk," alludes to ability alone. “ You may do so; I give you liberty.” “You can do so; I have not the
power to prevent you."
Might is the conditional of may, as could is of can; and may be explained and exemplified in a similar manner:
“ You might do what I desire: why, then, do you not do so?”—That is,
“ There is nothing to hinder you from doing what I wish; why then?” &c.
“ I might have put a hundred guineas in my pocket, had I taken his advice," means that it was a probable event that, had I taken his advice, I should have gained a hundred guineas; but the expression
“ I could have put a hundred guineas into my pocket,” &c. reduces the probability to a certainty.
May I ask you a favour?” is equivalent to “Will you permit me to ask you a favour?"
Might I ask you a favour?” would be “Am I able to ask you a favour?”
Proverbs are the traditions of language as well as of thoughts. Thus, the impropriety of procrastination is expressed in the adage
“ He that will not when he may, may not when he will."
And, when we say “ Might creates right,” we assert, whether mistakenly or not, that, in this world, “ Right is wholly dependent on power.”
Must expresses necessary action; but the necessity may either be the consequence of outward compulsion, or of internal conviction. The German müssen to be obliged (bound), is an irregular verb, having all the variety of conjugation usually found in that language; and the Saxon most, although imperfect, has its different tenses; but the English must never changes its orthography. In consequence of this defect, we can only learn, from the other words in the sentence, at what time the compulsion takes place.
" I must walk” is equivalent to “I feel the necessity of walking,” or “I am compelled to walk.”
“I must have walked” denotes that, at some past time, I had been obliged to walk. walk to-morrow” foretells, a future necessity: future, in consequence of the word to-morrow.
- I must
To DARE (Saxon dearran), is to risk the exertion of an assumed but uncertain power, and is more appropriately connected with verbs that indicate opposition or danger :
“ If I dare eat, or drink, or breathe, or live,
The imperfect tense is Durst in all the three persons, both singular and plural, as “ I durst," “Thou durst," "He durst,” &c.
When it is not employed as an auxiliary, the verb To dare is regular in the past as well as in the present tense, as “I dared," "Thou daredst,' “He dared," &c.; but the construction of the two forms of conjugation are different. In the one case we say,
“ I durst meet him," or durst meet him," and in the other, “ I dared to meet him,” or He dared to meet him.”
Durst is not limited, like dared, to past time, but has a contingent application, similar to that of could and might, without regard to tenses.“I durst as soon hang myself as contradict her,”