Can or May?

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Difference between "Can" and "May"?

"Can" and "may" are both used to ask for permission, but this has not always been the case. In the past, there was a clear distinction between "can" and "may." "Can" was used for ability (e.g., Can you swim?), and "may" was used for permission (e.g., May I swim in your lake?).

As this distinction is still observed by some, the following guidance is appropriate:

May for Permission. In a polite or formal setting, use "may" for permission. For example:
  • May she swim in your pool?
  • (This means "Is she permitted to swim in your pool?" It sounds polite.)
Can for Permission. In an informal setting, it is safe to use "can" for permission. For example:
  • Can she swim in your pool?
  • (This means the same as the one above. It sounds neutral as opposed to polite.)
Can for Ability. Use "can" for ability. For example:
  • Can she swim?
  • (Is she able to swim?)
  • Can she do quadratic equations?
  • (Is she able to do quadratic equations?)
You cannot use "may" to express ability.

More about "Can"

The word "can" is a modal auxiliary verb used to express ability. For example:
  • I can whistle.
  • (I have the ability to whistle.)
  • Can he lift 150 kgs?
  • (Does he have the ability to lift 150 kgs?)
"Can" can also be used to express permission. For example:
  • You can stroke the ponies but not goats.
  • (Here, "can" expresses permission. "Can" tends to be used for permission among friends or in an informal setting.)

More about "May"

The word "may" is a modal auxiliary verb used to denote permission. For example:
  • You can swim in this river.
  • (You are allowed to swim in this river.)
  • May I have a biscuit?
  • (Am I permitted to have a biscuit?)
If you have a reason to be "über correct" (e.g., you're hosting royalty or a very pedantic grandparent), you should use "may" and not "can" to express permission. It is true to say that "may" and "can" are interchangeable to express permission nowadays.

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See Also

cannot or can not? adverse or averse? affect or effect? appraise or apprise? avenge or revenge? bare or bear? complement or compliment? dependant or dependent? discreet or discrete? disinterested or uninterested? e.g. or i.e.? envy or jealousy? imply or infer? its or it's? material or materiel? may and might poisonous or venomous? practice or practise? principal or principle? shall and will cannot or can not? who's or whose? What are auxiliary verbs? List of easily confused words

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