“Can” is a Tricky Word

The blog title implies a certain amount of copyediting. So, let’s take a look at something from a Behind the Black post about the crashing Chinese booster:

The issue here is not the danger, but China’s gross negligence and violation of its treaty obligations in launching this rocket knowing the core stage was going to do this. No more Long March 5B launches can occur without them fixing the problem so that future core stages can be brought back to Earth in a controlled and safe manner.

“Can” is clearly not the correct word. More Long March 5B launches certain CAN occur – even if they need to build a new one and find a new launch site.

Does “may” work, though? That is grammatical, but the implication of “may” is that there is someone or something that will be forbidding what is otherwise possible. There may be such a thing – if nothing else the other signatories to the treaty could have a Zoom call – but if that thing is not going to take any action or if any action it takes will be ignored, “may” fails as well.

The best one can accurately say is: “It would be nice if no more Long March 5B launches occurred without…”

All is not lost, however. I believe that the flimsy subjunctive actually conveys not only a better sense of the facts, but a better sense of what needs to be done. This is not about Chinese capability (“can” or “cannot”) or even about China at all. It’s about the permission granting entity, whatever it might be. That puts the focus of a solution on the proper target. And, if one wants to play the blame game, it puts the blame on the treaty writers and signatories for “giving an order they know will not be obeyed.” Treaties that say nice things without an enforcement arm are useless.

This is not high horse America should even think of mounting. What did Ukraine get for giving up its nuclear weapons?

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