can and may - the difference


 
Use may for permission. Use can for ability.
 


There is often confusion over the words can and may.

Can

The word can is used to denote ability.

I can swim.
(I have the ability to swim.)

Can he lift 150 kgs?
(Does he have the ability to lift 150 kgs?)

May

The word may is used to denote permission.

You may swim in this river.
(You are allowed to swim in this river.)

May I have a biscuit?
(Am I permitted to have a biscuit?)

Can for Permission (Informal Setting)

These days, however, the word can is used for both ability and permission, particularly in an informal setting.

You can swim in this river.
(You are allowed to swim in this river.)

Can I have a biscuit?
(Am I permitted to have a biscuit?)

Always May for Permission in a Formal Setting

In a formal setting or in polite company, you should use may to denote permission.

May I leave the table?
(Am I permitted to leave the table?)

 
Select the correct version:

 
 

 
AUXILIARY VERBS

Can is an auxiliary verb meaning to be able to. May is an auxiliary verb meaning to be permitted to.

"Can I go outside, grandma?"

"You can, dear. You're just not allowed."

 

See also:

may and might
shall and will
What are auxiliary verbs?
What are verbs?
List of easily confused words