These two words cause a lot of confusion in English and leave writers—and speakers especially—unsure about which word to use and when. Does can have a special function that may cannot be used for? Or are they completely interchangeable?
What is the Difference Between Can and May?
Today, I want to highlight the differences between can and may. I will outline the traditional rule regarding can vs. may, provide you with example sentences for each, and offer some advice going forward in your writing.
After reading this post, you shouldn’t ever again wonder which is correct or which is proper, may or can.
When to Use Can
Can is an auxiliary verb (sometimes called a helping verb or a modal verb) and is used to denote physical or mental ability. It derives from the Old English cunnan, which means, “to be able.”
- Can you do the salsa?
- Can you play basketball?
- He can compose entire symphonies in his head.
- She can run a five-minute mile.
The traditional rule, as you probably learned in grade school, states that can has to do with physical ability or the capacity to do something, not with permission. As such, all of the above sentences could be rewritten by substituting can with able/capable.
- Are you capable of doing the salsa?
- Are you able to play basketball?
You probably remember being a young student and asking the question,
- Can I go to the bathroom?
Your teacher would invariably correct you by saying,
This, of course, was an instructional exercise on the part of the teacher, who was attempting to instill the difference between expressing one’s physical ability and a request for permission: the difference between may I vs. can I.
When to Use May
May is also an auxiliary verb and is used to denote possibility or permission.
- There may be a storm tomorrow. (Possibility)
- I may attend the festivities this weekend. (Possibility)
- You may borrow my jacket. (Permission)
- If you finish your chores, you may play outside. (Permission)
For a discussion between may vs. might, see our full post on the subject.
Going back to our example from above, what your teacher wanted you to ask was the question,
- May I go to the bathroom?
This is a request for permission and not a statement of ability.
How to Express the Denial of Permission
Up until this point, we have focused on the person asking the question and not the person answering. If someone asks you for permission, what is the proper way to respond?
If the answer is yes, then no thought is given at all.
- May I come inside?
- Yes, you may.
But, if the answer is no, there are a few additional considerations to keep in mind.
A denial of permission is properly phrased formally by saying may not or with cannot or can’t.
- You may not use my car tonight.
- You cannot use my car tonight.
- You can’t use my car tonight.
But, you should not use the contraction mayn’t. Most people are unaware of this contraction to being with, but for those writers/speakers who are, it’s best to avoid it.
Are May vs. Can Interchangeable?
Does it really make a difference whether I use can I vs. may I?
If you are writing a highly formal letter where politeness and cordiality is a primary concern, you will definitely want to adhere to the traditional rule and use may to ask permission.
Similarly, if you are at a fancy restaurant, it might be more appropriate to as your waiter, May I have some more water? instead of saying, Can I have some more water?
May is the more polite option.
If, however, you are surrounded by peers in an informal setting, there is nothing wrong with asking your friend, Can I have another hot dog? at a cookout.
As with most writing and speaking, you need to know your audience and understand what is best for the situation at hand. When you wish to show courtesy, respect, and politeness, use may. When these are not of concern, using can is fine.
It should also be noted that while you can use can instead of the word may to request permission, you cannot use may instead of the word can to express ability.
- I may play basketball. (WRONG)
- I can play basketball. (CORRECT)
Difference Between Can and May (with Comparison Chart)
The words can and may are auxiliary verbs, which are often juxtaposed when we talk about possibility or permission. Basically, the word ‘can‘ is used when someone has the ability to do something, or when you are allowed to do something.
On the other hand, may is used to discuss possibility or happenings in the future. It is also used when you want to take or give permission for doing something. Now, let’s move on to our examples to understand the difference between can and may in a better way:
- Can you ride the bike? Or May I ride your bike?
- Joseph can come tomorrow. Or Joseph may come tomorrow.
In this first example, you might have observed that the word ‘can’ is used to know the ability of a person in doing something, whereas ‘may’ is used to ask for the consent. In our next example, both the two discusses the possibility but may represent a strong possibility while can indicates an expectation.
Content: Can Vs. May
|Meaning||Can refers to the capability of someone in doing something.||May is used in sentence to reflect the possibility or permissibility of something.|
|Examples||Team A can win this match.||May I go outside?|
|Can you speak clearly?||This may not be true.|
|Can I have your number?||May I check your bag?|
Definition of Can
The word ‘can’ means ‘be able to,’ it denotes the capability of a person. It is also used for determining the possibility of something or informally ask for permission to do something. Now let’s discuss the usage of can:
- It indicates the ability of a person:
- Can you translate this letter into French?
- She can help us in solving the problem.
- I can do it in the best way.
- To ask for permission:
- You can keep your belongings over there.
- You can take selfies with foreigners.
- Can I get the email ID?
- To request for something:
- Can you pass this message to the manager?
- Please, can I get your notebook for a moment?
- To represent the possibility:
- Can I expect you day after tomorrow?
- If your age is more than 60 years, you can get retirement benefits.
- To give an offer or suggestion:
- Can I bring that book to you?
- Can I play on your behalf?
Definition of May
In English, we use ‘may’ for expressing any kind of possibility, regarding happenings or events that may occur in the future. It is also used to give and take permission to someone to do something. Now, let’s move on to understand its usage, with the help of points given below:
- To represent the possibility:
- The exams may start from the next week.
Can vs may
Strictly speaking, can is an auxiliary verb that is used to express mental and physical capability. May is an auxiliary verb that is used to express permission. However, the sharp dividing line between the use of can and may has eroded, due to the English language’s seeming evolution toward informality.
Today, can is used to express mental and physical capability and in informal circumstances, it expresses permission. A child might ask a teacher, “May I have an apple?” as the child is asking a superior if he will be allowed to receive an apple. A child might ask another child, “Can I have an apple?” as he is speaking to a peer.
May is more polite than can, it is used in situations of courtesy, formality and making requests of superiors in age or rank.
- “I am bringing this action to ensure that legally supported expenditures can continue to be made and to address the question of how the state payroll is legally managed during the budget impasse,” Madigan said in a statement. (Huffington Post)
- Ekin company says the vehicle-mounted system is a state-of-the-art and unique product, which can scan all the number plates of vehicles within its effective range through 180-degrees and match the speeds of the vehicles to their number plates. (Daily Mail)
- Can I leave my child home alone? (Marshfield News-Herald)
- Can I Throw This Student Loan Back to My Ex-Wife? (Huffington Post)
May I get back to you within two hours to determine next steps?” (U.S. News & World Report)
May I Lie to My Husband to Get Him to See a Doctor? (The New York Times)
May I also remind you that Sharma’s predecessor Dr DK Sakale was also found dead in similar suspicious circumstances, when his body was found burnt to death,” Surjewala told reporters. (First Post)
Can vs. May in Simple Terms
Has anyone ever corrected your request for permission from “Can I please” to “May I please”? The difference between can and may matters quite a bit to strict grammarians, but not as much to the average English speaker. Learn when to use these words in conversation with a selection of can vs. may examples.
Can vs May Example
Can and may are both modal verbs that express mood when used with main verbs. However, whether they are interchangeable or not depends on whether the context requires classic usage or modern speech.
The traditional definitions of each word are:
- Can: Indicates that someone has the ability to do something
- May:Refers to the possibility of something happening
Using can and may in a traditional context is simple, because they do have separate meanings. Where it gets tricky is when you want to ask for permission, such as in can I vs. may I? May is the traditional choice for asking permission; however, the overlap in the meaning of can makes it another modern option.
A Difference in Tone
Take a look at these two nearly identical questions:
- May I go to the dance?
- Can I go to the dance?
The main difference between these sentences is their tone. May makes the first sentence sound more formal, while can brings the tone of the second sentence to a more casual level. They are both essentially asking the same thing.
Other examples of tone shifts include:
- May I go to the bathroom?Can I go to the bathroom?
- May I see that photograph?Can I see that photograph?
- May my daughter attend the party?Can my daughter attend the party?
In each of these examples, context clues and common sense tell us that the speaker is not referring to their physical ability to perform the task. Modern usage has made either word acceptable for asking and granting permission, with may more appropriate for formal requests.
Another tone difference between can and may occurs when you use them negatively. Both cannot and may not are best used in a formal setting. When you try to use them as contractions for a more casual tone, you have can’t and mayn’t. Of these options, can’t is much more acceptable in modern conversation.
There are instances outside of asking for permission when you should use can instead of may. Sentences that convey a person’s ability to do something should always use can (or could, if the answer is less certain). Here are some example sentences in which can is the correct choice.
- Can you play the piano?
- I can’t get to the office by 3:00.
- The new copy machine can staple and collate copies.
- How can I tell the difference between fruits and vegetables?
- Sharon can type almost 90 words a minute.
When to Use May
Can I, Could I, May I?
For VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.
This week we will give you some tips on how to use modals to make requests and give permission. Some common modals for expressing permission are may, can, and could. But these modals have multiple meanings that can be confusing for English learners.
Can and May
Children in American schools learn to use the modal may when asking for permission. A student might ask the teacher, “May I be excused?” before leaving the room.
When students asked, “Can I leave the room?” their teachers often made a joke, “You can, but you may not.” The teacher was saying the student is able to leave the room, but does not have permission to do so.
May is the most formal way to ask for permission. The distinction between can and may is slowly disappearing in English.
These days, is not always clear if may is being used to express permission or possibility—or both. Let's look at some examples in the language of Internet privacy policies.
When you visit a website for the first time, you often see a popup box asking for permission to collect information about you. Privacy laws in some countries require websites to tell you what information is collected and how it will be used.
A common privacy statement includes this sentence: “We may collect various types of information…when you visit any of our sites.”
Let's see what this legal language really means. “We may collect information…” means that you give the company permission to collect information about you. In other words, you allow the company to save your email address or your computer's address.
But may has multiple meanings. In addition to expressing permission, may also expresses possibility. For example, “It may rain” means that there is a possibility of rain.
Let’s go back to our privacy example. “We may collect various types of information…when you visit any of our sites.” The policy contains some clever legal language.
“We may collect information” means “We have permission to collect information.” But it could also mean, “There is a possibility that we will collect information.” One could make an argument for both meanings.
As an Internet user, you should assume both meanings of may are part of the policy.
Could and May
A third modal for making polite requests is could. For example, “Could I please have some water?” Could is the past tense of can. However, when asking for permission, could does not have a past tense meaning. Could has the same meaning as may when making requests. It is equally polite to say “Could I leave early?” or “May I leave early?”
Could is used with any subject to ask for permission. For example “Could I open the window?” or “Could you open the window?” are both grammatical.
Be careful with may. When making a request using may, only I can be the subject. If you are making a formal request to dance with someone, you would say, “May I have this dance?” not “May you have this dance?” May followed by you does not express a request; it expresses a wish, as in “May you live long.”
But that’s another episode. Until next time, we’ll leave you a song of permission by the Temptations.
- May I have this dance
- May I, may, may I have this dance
- I’m Jonathan Evans with Ashley Thompson.
Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Adam Brock was the editor.
Words in This Story
- modal verb – a verb (such as can, could, shall, should, ought to, will, or would) that is usually used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility, necessity, and permission
- permission – n.
the right or ability to do something that is given by someone who has the power to decide if it will be allowed or permitted
- distinction – n. the separation of people or things into different groups
- privacy – n.
the state of being away from public attention
- pop-up – adj. computers : appearing on the screen over another window or document
- allow – v. to permit (something) : to regard or treat (something) as acceptable
- formal – adj.
of language: suitable for serious or official speech and writing
A Game to Learn “May”
A traditional children's game is called “Mother May I?” One child plays the Mother or Father at one end of a room or a yard. The other children start on the opposite side in a line. The goal of the game is to get to the place where the Mother or Father stands.
The Mother/Father player gives one player instructions, such as “Take three giant steps.” The player must ask for permission to move forward by saying, “Mother, may I?” The Mother/ Father says, “Yes, you may” or “No, you may not.” If the player moves without asking for permission, that player has to go back to the starting line.
This game helps children to remember two things – to ask permission and to be polite.
Now it’s your turn. Write one sentence politely asking for permission.
When to Use Can vs. May vs. Might – Barbara McNichol Editorial Services
by Kathleen Watson
Either at home or early in your school days, did you learn about a difference between can vs. may?
Can you (do you have the ability to) have your book report done by noon?
May I (do I have your permission to) read your book report to the class?
According to merriam-webster.com, can still is the verb of choice for ability, but both can and may are acceptable to express permission.
But at oxforddictionaries.com, there still is a widespread view that using can to ask for permission is wrong and that it should be used related only to ability or capability:
Can you speak fluent French?
The wrestler can pin any opponent he chooses.
Other sources claim there’s only a minor difference between the two verbs: One sounds more polite than the other.
- Can we come over and swim in your pool?
- May we come over and swim in your pool?
- If I can, I’ll ask you a few questions about your job.
- If I may, I’ll ask you a few questions about your job.
Moving on to may and might
- Now that we have can and may settled — sort of — what is the difference between may and might?
Commonly Confused Words: Can vs. May
Last week we looked at the difference between may and might. Another word people often worry about confusing with may is can. Read on to find out when to use which word.
What does each word mean?
- Can means ‘to be able to’. In a question, can might be used to ask about a capability, to ask someone to do something, or to ask for permission. Its past tense form is could.
Here is can used in some example questions:
- Can his brother speak French too? (asks about capability)
- Can you pass the salt? (requests someone to do something)
- Can I go to the toilet? (asks for permission)
- As we explained last week, may is used to express possibility. The word is also used as a verb for requesting and giving permission – and it is this definition that confuses people.
Here is may used in some example sentences:
- May I go to the toilet?
- You may watch TV after you’ve finished your homework.
- So when should I use which?
- Have you ever had a teacher who refused to excuse you from the classroom until you asked using may instead of can?
This is because many people (including teachers!) insist that can should be reserved for talking about ability, while may should be used when asking for or giving permission.
Actually, in the context of requesting or giving permission, both words are acceptable in Standard English. The main difference between the two words is that may is considered more polite.
Are there any tricks to help remember the difference between these words?
Can или May? / Can versus May
Употребление глаголов can и may в современном английском языке часто вызывает затруднение. Подчас сложно сразу же сказать, какое предложение будет верным “May we expect you tomorrow?” или “Can we expect you tomorrow?”
Когда-то по строгим правилам английской грамматики can выражал физическую или умственную способность, а may – разрешение и одобрение. Считалось неправильным использовать can в значении разрешения. Для этого был глагол may:- May I accompany you to the concert, Miss Smith- Why of course you may, honey.
А о способностях к танцам эта молодая леди могла спросить так:- Can you do the tango?
И получить, например, такой положительный ответ:- Why of course I can, Miss Smith.
Сегодня правила языка не так определенны. Уже со второй половины 19 века can используется в неформальной речи для выражения разрешения. Например, можно было услышать следующее:Can I go to the party? – Можно я пойду на вечер?
И в наши дни, can также используется в неформальном контексте для выражения разрешения. Учителя начальных классов часто слышатCan I go to the garden?
а родителей преследуетCan I have a doll?
Дети повторяют то, что слышат от взрослых, а последние, как видно, все больше отдаляются от may, звучащего порой слишком чопорно.
Лингвист Вейхман также разделяет данные глаголы, замечая, что вопрос с may «звучит вежливее».
Поэтому можно сделать вывод, что только в формальных и официальных ситуациях общения следует употреблять этот глагол для запроса разрешения. Например, в разговоре с официантом ресторана выгоднее будет звучать
- May I have more salt, please?
- нежелиCan I have more salt, please?
- А если вы постучались в дверь, то лучше спроситьMay I come in?
Что же касается запрещения, то употребление mayn’t крайне не рекомендуется. Это относится ко всем стилям.You can’t go to the disco.
Употребление may в таких случаях, хотя формально и допустимо, но звучит неестественно.
Образованные люди скорее скажут “Can’t I?” а не “Mayn’t I?” или “May I not?” И даже по строгим правилам английской грамматики вопрос “Why mayn’t I go to the disco?” звучит неверно, можно сказать “не по-английски” Итак, в ближайшем будущем глагол mayn’t, скорее всего, станет архаизмом, если уже не стал.
А теперь вернемся к вопросу, заданному в начале статьи. Какой же вариант будет правильным “Can or may we see you tomorrow?” Вначале следует понять, что подразумевает говорящий: способность или разрешение. Для этого можно заменить глагол, например, его эквивалентом:Are we allowed to see you tomorrow?
- Сразу же понятно, что значение разрешения не подходит.Но и способность в данном случае также не подразумевается:
- Are we mentally able to see you tomorrow?
- Если поразмыслить немного, то приходишь к выводу, что в данном случае наилучшим вариантом будет might:Might we see you tomorrow?
Разницу употребления may и might см. May или Might.
Между тем, “Are you coming tomorrow?” также может подойти в данном случае. Но если бы необходимо было выбирать между can и may, то предпочтение все же желательно отдавать первому:Can we see you tomorrow?
Итак, в неформальной обстановке употребление can вместо may разрешено и широко применяется в речи, в то время как в официальном стиле для выражения одобрения рекомендуется использовать may.