Can vs. May

Posted on Tuesday, February 12, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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 (especially in spoken, informal language) in respect to permission. Even the Oxford English dictionary informs us that the permission use of can is not incorrect, but it’s better and more polite to use may in formal situations.

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.

Leave a Comment

Checking In on Worn-Out Words and Phrases: First Quarter 2019

Posted on Tuesday, February 5, 2019, at 11:00 pm

"Nature abhors a vacuum," Aristotle once said, and the same holds true for language. If we detect an empty lexical space because we feel existing words no longer occupy it well, we will look to fill it, often with something that seems or sounds fresh within our current culture and era. For a time, we …

Read More

A Real Feather-Ruffler

Posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2019, at 11:00 pm

Up until the late eighteenth century, Brits spoke with an American accent. So says the noted language scholar Patricia T. O’Conner. The “English” accent as we know it didn’t develop until the late 1700s. That’s when British snobs started doing things like dropping r’s, adding and subtracting h’s, saying “pahst” instead of “past,” and “sec-ra-tree” and “mill-a-tree” …

Read More

Notwithstanding, Can We Withstand Confusion of Meaning?

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, at 11:00 pm

Developing a rich vocabulary through the reading and writing of English adds color to our thoughts, our speech, and our lives. Through a growing lexicon, we convey and connect to others with clearer intention and meaning using greater precision and eloquence. We also sharpen our ability to see relationships among words by understanding their roots, …

Read More

Have You Ever Heard These 25 Obscure English Words?

Posted on Tuesday, January 15, 2019, at 11:00 pm

There's something so satisfying about pulling out a $15 word—the kind that you hardly ever get to use, but fits the situation perfectly. On the other hand, that feeling when you can't quite find the right word for what you're trying to express is incredibly aggravating. Well, we're here to help. Here are 25 weird, obscure, and …

Read More

1 2 3 84