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Can vs. May

Although, traditionally, can has meant “to be able” and may has meant “to be permitted” or to express possibility, both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission.

Example: He can hold his breath for 30 seconds.

Meaning: He is able to hold his breath for 30 seconds.

Example: He may hold his breath for 30 seconds.

Meaning #1: It is possible that he will hold his breath.

Meaning #2: He has permission to hold his breath. (This meaning is unlikely.)

Example: May/Can I go to the mall tonight?

Regardless of whether you choose can or may here, it is clear that permission is being requested.

In spoken English, a request for permission is generally answered with can, cannot, or can’t, rather than with may or may not, even if the question was formed using may. (Although mayn’t is a word, it looks and sounds strange even to native speakers.)

Example of Dialogue:

“May I go to the mall tonight?”
“No, you can’t/cannot go.” OR “Yes, you can go.”

Occasionally, you may hear someone say something like, “I cannot but argue when you say such silly things.” The expression cannot but argue is actually an old-fashioned way of saying “cannot help arguing.” You may also hear the expression can but, which means “can only.”
Example: We can but do our best to arrive on time.

 

Pop Quiz

1. Can/May you imagine a world without war?
2. Can/May I call you for a date?
3. She can/may run faster than anyone else on the team. (able to)

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Can you imagine a world without war?
2. Can OR May I call you for a date?
3. She can run faster than anyone else on the team.

Posted on Saturday, February 24, 2007, at 12:07 am


65 Comments

65 Responses to “Can vs. May

  1. Jane says:

    Larry, you are most welcome.

  2. Larry Henry says:

    I am very happy to see that you make a distinction between may and can. I teach ESL students at the elementary and college levels. I had talked to the ” Grammar Lady ” a few years ago. She said that the rule had been relaxed and you could use can for permission. I refused to accept that and continued to teach the difference between the two. I had two elementary school teachers who taught grammar with a passion. I loved learning about grammar
    and diagramming. I have found only two other people who feel the way I do about grammar. Thank you for the service you provide.

    Larry E. Henry

  3. Tom says:

    Larry/Jane: I too am pretty passionate about grammar.

  4. ravi bedi says:

    Now which one is more appropriate:

    1. “May I speak to ….”
    2. “May I speak with…”
    3. “Can I speak to…”
    4. “Can I speak with…”
    5. “Could I speak with/to…”

  5. Jane says:

    “May I speak to…” and “May I speak with…” are both correct. “Can” is used for ability while “may” is used for permission, which fits with your example.

  6. ravi bedi says:

    Thank you Jane. It’s crystal clear to me now.

  7. Jane says:

    It’s true that spoken language is often different from written language. Your examples with “can” and “may” are good ones.

  8. Michelle Dermanelian says:

    When my children ask, “May I go outside?” Do I response “Yes, you can.”?

  9. Jane says:

    I’m sure that a simple “yes” is enough for them to go running out the door. However, I won’t sidestep your question. To help them understand the distinction between “can” and “may,” you may wish to say, “Yes, you may.”

  10. H-man says:

    Grammar lovers tend to love rules. Alas, grammar is often not nearly as cut-and-dried as these folks would like. Merriam addresses far more than the stark permission / ability dichotomy. In many contexts “can” and “may” are interchangable. “May” certainly may (sic) be used to denote possibility. Hence, the procedure “You may click the third link to open the PDF” is fine, despite all those that scream can! can! until the woman with the ruffled dress starts dancing with a high kick.

  11. vickie says:

    i have a colleague who, in emails, types, “may you (call this person, meet me at 3pm, etc.)” instead of, “can you”. it drives me crazy, because i know it’s not correct, but i don’t know how to tell her. could you give me the rule?
    thanks!

    • Jane says:

      “Can you” would be correct because these questions imply the ability to fulfill the request, not permission to do so. Example: You can eat cake. (You have the ability to eat cake.) You may eat cake. (You have permission to eat cake.)

  12. Aoutt says:

    Lol.

    Wow! I’ve always wondered about this; I’ve recently started to use “may” a lot more (at the appropriate time of course). But, “can” seems, to me, to be more used informally used to mean can/may and “may” used formally to mean can/may. But that’s just me.

    It doesn’t help though that other people still use “can” anyway to mean can/may.

    Whenever my baby sister gets the chance to come around to my house, I insist on her using “May I?” whenever she wants something, hehe.

    Good AND correct expression seems to be a priceless skill that many still need to acquire.

    Good job Jane :)

    • Jane says:

      Thanks for the compliment. You bring up a good point about “can” being used in place of “may” in informal writing. English is a living language; therefore, rules become outdated and vocabulary changes constantly. Thanks for writing.

  13. Ann says:

    Is it correct to answer a phone call with “How can I direct your call?” Or, is the only proper way “How may I direct your call?”

    • Jane says:

      The word “may” is used for permission and “can” is used for ability. Therefore, “How may I direct your call,” would be correct.

  14. Kathy says:

    I work in education. On our website’s main page is the question “How Can We Help?” Is this acceptable, or should the question read, “How May We Help?”

    • Jane says:

      The word “can” implies ability; therefore, it is fine to say, “How can we help?” This means, “How are we best able to help?” This is probably closer to your intention than “may” because “may” implies permission to help, which presumably you already have.

  15. Jack Russell says:

    There is a problem with determining use of can or may for editors: Sometimes you do not know the intent of the writer. Consider the following text from a training document from a course at a medical organization:

    “The users (may/can) ask questions.”

    In this case, it is unknown (and unknowable) whether the users have the ability or need to obtain permission to ask questions.

    So, in this case both could be true. Obviously, everyone has the ability to ask questions, and trainees of a new process should always feel they have permission to ask questions in a seminar (to make sure those who have questions can get them answered).

    In this case, wouldn’t either be correct?

    • Jane says:

      As you mention, it is very likely that the trainees have the ability to ask questions, therefore, this is probably a statement that the users have permission to ask questions. Since both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission, either would be correct.

  16. Misty says:

    Going along with the previously mentioned cannot, I have not been able to find an acceptable explanation for when to use “can not” vs. “cannot.” Any help on this would be most appreciated.

    • Jane says:

      The use of cannot is far more common than can not, though either is correct. You are more likely to see the two word version in a sentence such as, “He can not only speak five languages, he teaches math and science as well.” (Admittedly, “He not only speaks five languages . . .” is a less awkward wording.)

  17. Nataki Beckford says:

    What is correct, My said that I can go to the park or mother said I may go to the park?

  18. Honey says:

    Is this correct?

    “May we request you to…..?”

  19. Honey says:

    And which is correct?

    May we request you to please….?

    We are requesting you to please…

    We are requesting you to…

    Thank you very much.. =)

  20. Fejjie says:

    I find this funny as I had an ex-boss who would only respond to ‘may’. So if I asked ‘can I see the latest report’ the response would be ‘yes you could’ but unless I used the word ‘may’ the report would not be forthcoming.
    Don’t remember ever getting taught this at school. Though I did sleep through most English classes much to the chargrin of my English teacher mother.

    Language should be as simple as possible whilst avoiding ambiguity so ‘may’ should stay. Just think of the following statement:

    “Miss Black, can I beat up little Johnny?”
    Should teacher send me to detention or just point out that I probably could?

  21. Joe says:

    is it ok to use May when you’re asking someone if they can do something?

    example: “May you send me an email confirming our conversation?”

  22. Jane, I love that you mention how English is a living language, and thus changes over time. We no longer use “gay” to mean happy. We use “mouse” to mean a squeaky animal or a part of your computer, and we determine which is which from context without throwing a fit. “Mean” originally meant “inferior/poor.” Then it developed into “stingy,” which is still the dominant meaning in British English, but I’ve never heard any strict American grammarians yelling at people to only use “cruel” instead of “mean.” Shakespeare’s “villains” were simply peasants or farmers. Things change, and I believe that many of these changes enrich the language, not destroy it.

  23. Robbie says:

    my coworker asked, in regards to a task, “can we do it tomorrow?” I replied like pee wee herman, “i dont know. can we?” implying that he should have asked “may we do it tomorrow?” he then insisted that “may” cannot be used in a plural sense. i think he’s full of bull. anyone have an answer/opinion on this?

    • Jane says:

      There is no rule saying that may cannot be used in a plural sense. As stated in our “Can vs. May” blog, “Although, traditionally, can has meant “to be able” and may has meant “to be permitted” or to express possibility, both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission. Further, “In spoken English, a request for permission is generally answered with can, cannot, or can’t, rather than with may or may not, even if the question was formed using may.”

  24. Deborah says:

    Is is grammatically acceptable to say, “I would like to have the extra juice” as opposed to saying “May I have the extra juice?” Thank you!

    • Jane says:

      Either of the two sentences is grammatically acceptable, however, if you are concerned about etiquette, “May I please have the extra juice” is the polite way to phrase it.

  25. Deborah says:

    Thank you so very much! You clarified a little difference of opinion that I had with a colleague of mine. He said it was not appropriate or correct to say and corrected one of my students. Etiquette and politness are what I work on with my students; however, I appreciate it when they are grammatically correct. Thanks again. DB

  26. Sara says:

    My employer insists that we use the phrase: “Can I help you find something?” I think that this is grammatically incorrect, and should be “May I help you find something?” What do you think? Am I just old fashioned?

    • Jane says:

      Although, traditionally, can has meant “to be able” and may has meant “to be permitted” or to express possibility, both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission, especially in spoken English. Regardless of whether you choose can or may here, it is clear that permission is being requested. I still recommend the use of may in a formal written context.

  27. carol says:

    my daughter is teaching my grandson to ask for help with putting on his shoes. so he asks *may you help me put on my shoes?* , *may you help me with my coat?* etc….
    is this correct? my daughter seems to think that asking *could, would , can or will you help me is rude.

    • Jane says:

      Sounds like your daughter is trying to teach her son to be courteous. Since he is asking for help with something he cannot do on his own and not for permission, I suggest starting with the word please followed by can. The words could, would, or will are also acceptable. “Please can/could/would/will you help me put on my shoes/socks/coat?”

  28. jovie says:

    Is
    “Can you hear me?” correct.
    Or
    “Do you hear me?” correct

  29. Fairy says:

    I am a little confused by the “possibility” meaning that a phrase can (or may?) imply.
    For example, in the original text about to be edited I have:
    “Our software may be integrated with third-party applications.”
    Which verb is to be used in this case?
    Initially, I’m inclined to use “can” – “Our software can be integrated with third-party applications”.
    But when I think twice, “may” sounds like a good option as well, because it is possible to integrate the applications with software.
    Is it the Passive that confuses me?
    Thanks!

    • Jane says:

      Our blog “Can vs. May” says: “Although, traditionally, can has meant “to be able” and may has meant to be permitted or to express possibility, both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission.” In this case, it’s not 100% clear whether the company intends to mean the software is able to be integrated or whether they give permission to integrate it. If the company intends both, can seems preferable since it is preferred for “ability” and can and may are interchangeable for permission.

  30. Jd says:

    I was asked to clarify may vs can to two ESL friends yesterday and responded with the same “ability vs permission” as found here. Thinking further, I have been unable to determine why we use “may” when “wishing” something: e.g. “May your journey be without incident.”

    Can you please clarify this usage? It seems colloquial usage favors usage that of grammatically correct usage that “sounds” awkward in most cases.

    • Jane says:

      The American Heritage Dictionary‘s entry for the word may includes “Used to express a desire or fervent wish: Long may he live!” Some may consider this usage odd-sounding but it is grammatically correct.

  31. Amon says:

    Hi,
    I’m wondering if which is correct…

    May I ask a favor please?
    Can I ask a favor please?

    Thanks

    • Jane says:

      Although, traditionally, can has meant “to be able” and may has meant “to be permitted” or to express possibility, both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission, especially in spoken English. Regardless of whether you choose can or may here, it is clear that permission is being requested. I still recommend the use of may in a formal context.

  32. Hermione says:

    In regards to the mini quiz, I believe the third question’s answer is only partially correct.

    “He can run faster than anyone else on the team” would be he is able to do so, and this is the answer given.

    However, “he may run faster than anyone else on the team” would mean that it is possible that he is the fastest runner on the team, but you aren’t sure. If a group of people were watching a race and saw a man who runs very fast and it seems like a possibility that he may be the fastest one out of them all, you would use may.

    • Jane says:

      The third question specifically says “able to” in parentheses. The word can is the only possible answer with that distinction given in the question.

  33. Ruchelle says:

    If we need more mashed potatoes, should question be “Can we have some more mashed potatoes” or “May we have some more mashed potatoes”.

    • Jane says:

      Although, traditionally, can has meant “to be able” and may has meant “to be permitted” or to express possibility, both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission, especially in spoken English. I prefer the politely phrased “May we please have some more mashed potatoes?”

  34. Lola says:

    As a service representative on answering the phone should I say “How may I help you?” or “How can I help you?”

  35. Gordon says:

    Can you tell me what may means in the following text.

    Employees who have held acting promotion for a continuous period of 12 months or more, MAY, when they revert to their previous grade, be allowed to retain the pay of the higher grade on a mark-time basis. This is done on the understanding that employees are willing to accept further periods of acting promotion.

    Thanks

  36. Fran says:

    Does the sentence “May you get me my backpack?” Grammatically correct? I think it would be but I’m just not sure

    • “Could you” or “will you” or “would you” would be correct, because if you think about it, this is not really a question. The speaker is making a request, not asking permission.

  37. Christopher says:

    I think the real question is whether it’s grammatically correct to say, “May you…”.

    It makes me cringe to hear that when my students ask me to open the restroom. I tell them we only use MAY when it involves ourselves. ex: May I or May we. That’s probably not correct, but it sounded like the best answer off the top of my head. Is there a rule about which verb to use in the second person?

    • When using the second person, the speaker is making a request, not asking permission. Therefore, can you, will you, or would you is preferred. The exception is when may is used to express a desire or wish such as “May you have a long and happy retirement.”

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