Ruthie falls into the deontic-epistemic pit

The One Big Happy cartoon from 11/4, in today’s comics feed:

You can’t sell candy without a license.

Compare: I can’t talk.

Avis speaks deontically: without a license — if you don’t have a license — you aren’t permitted / allowed to sell candy. Compare: I’m not allowed to talk.

Ruthie understands epistemically: without a license, you are unable to — lack the ability to — sell candy. Compare: I’m not capable of talking, I lack the ability to talk.

Context and background knowledge color which understanding is most likely: for licenses and candy-selling, the weight is heavily on the deontic side; but for speaking, things can go either way: there’s a section of “Nick Danger, Third Eye” that plays on We can’t talk here understood epistemically when in the context we’d expect a deontic understanding:

NANCY: (muffled) Nick, we can’t talk here.
NICK: (muffled) We can, um…
NANCY: (muffled) We can’t talk here!
NICK: (muffled) What do you mean we can’t talk here?!
NANCY: (muffled) We can’t…!
NICK: (muffled) Oh. You’re right. We can’t. What should we do?
NANCY: (muffled) Follow me. This way.

Can’t ‘be unable to’ (which is the case in this scene) vs. can’t roughly ‘mustn’t, shouldn’t’ (which is what “we can’t talk here” would ordinarily convey).

As is so often the case, Ruthie opts for the less likely (though not impossible) understanding. But then that’s what naifs in the comics are for.

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