Grammar Can vs. May |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

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 (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.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

143 responses to “Can vs. May

  1. 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.

    • Emeka Onyema says:

      Is it wrong for a child to say to her mother “Can you get some money for me, please?” Thank you for your answer in advance.

  2. Jane says:

    Larry, you are most welcome.

    • henry wild says:

      is it
      you may pass the test because you studied hard or
      you can pass the test because you studied hard

  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?

    • 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:

    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.

      • Garry Gulliver says:

        I beg to differ; “How can I direct your call”? ought to be more appropriate here ;the caller expects someone to answer on the other end of the line; by the actual nature of the call being initiated by the caller, ‘permission’ is implied to the receiver of that call to direct the call to whoever can assist the caller; therefore, the word ‘may’ is not needed in the response of the receiver of the call; depending on a variety of possible end recipients to the call, the switchboard operator, receiving the call, ought to respond with ” How can I direct your call” or ” Hello, to whom should I direct your call”? “How may I direct your call” implies two things; firstly using ‘may’ in the question to the caller, assumes you have permission to direct the call and using ‘how’ gives the caller the impression that the receiver of the call can put the caller in touch with the person the caller wants to speak with! That type of response is confusing! In summary, stick with the responses with ‘can’ in the question NOT ‘may’ !

        • You make some good points. If we look at this carefully, there could possibly be multiple lines of analysis here. For instance, we could reason that “How can I direct your call?” asks how should I use the phone to reach the person desired: press the four-digit extension, press all ten digits of the full office number, or dial the person’s home or mobile phone number, etc.?

          The bottom line for us is that the switchboard operators or receptionists are in a position that should reflect well on the company they work for, and therefore they should be helpful and courteous. This leans more toward permission and the use of may over can. But, as we mention in the post, both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission. The division between permission and ability can sometimes become blurry, and there may be no clearly right or wrong answer in certain cases.

  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.

    • 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. Melinda Brasher says:

    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?

    • 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!

    • 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?

    • 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. We 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.

    • 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, we 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:

    “Can you hear me?” correct.
    “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?

    • 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 the company gives 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.

  31. Amon says:

    I’m wondering if which is correct…

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


    • 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. We 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.

    • 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”.

    • 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. We 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.


  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.”

  38. Merlinda says:

    I had a client asking me to complete a form. She said “May you complete …” If I were asking someone, I would have said “Would you please complete …”. Am I correct or not?

  39. John Perrott says:

    As I perceive the problem, if ‘may’ and ‘might’ are treated as synonyms and ‘can’ and ‘may’ are treated similarly, we are left unable to distinguish as between the modes of ‘ability’, ‘permission’ and ‘possibility’.

    I appreciate that, through some leverage that must have been political, we are now forced to make dictionaries ‘descriptive’ rather than ‘prescriptive’ (i.e. put meaning in the hands of the indiscriminate) but, on the above evidence, the price of that change is inordinately high.

    Personally, I continue to use ‘can’, ‘may’ and ‘might’ as originally taught (in my generation). this is because, as the historic, Roman legionnaire is reported as saying, “I see considerable change but very little progress.”

    God help those whose job involves writing contracts!

    • Some dictionaries (e.g., American Heritage) have always been more on the prescriptive side and some (e.g., Webster’s) more on the descriptive side. We are not aware of any recent changes in any dictionaries’ policies.

  40. diane civitelli says:

    There is no school Tuesday OR Thursday sounds correct to me, but my ESL students were confused and thought AND should have been used because OR suggests a choice and in this case there is none.
    Saying—there is no school Tuesday AND Thursday doesn’t sound right. Possibly because the days are not consecutive?

  41. Adi says:

    “Can I have your number?”
    “May I have your number?”

    Which is more appropriate?

    • Although both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission, especially in spoken English, we prefer the politely phrased “May I have your number?”

      • Shabz says:

        can -> ability
        may -> permission

        In earlier days, those who were well-literate (I am saying literate, not educate), would frame sentences with the correct use of modal auxiliaries. Others did not know the denotation of these auxiliaries. Listening to them, wrong usage of these auxiliaries culminated.

        When you are asking someone (spoken verbally):

        Can I speak? is wrong (It is obvious that you are able to speak because you asked that question just a moment ago)

        May I speak? is correct (needless to justify)

        Whereas, when you pen down on paper, and write
        Can I speak? is correct (Because no one knows if you are able to speak till the time you actually utter a word)

  42. L K says:

    Which of these is correct?

    “You can increase contributions by asking friends?”
    “You may increase contributions by asking friends?”

    The first indicates that an action that is made will yield a result. The second was suggested as more appropriate because I believe the individual uses “may” to signify that the yield is not guaranteed. I say the first is correct. Jane, which one is correct?

    • Can is preferred for ability, however, may and might are used to indicate possibility. Therefore, both sentences (omitting the question marks) are grammatically correct. It depends on whether you choose to imply certainty or possibility.

  43. W Minaker says:

    Does this sentence mean the employee must administer medication?
    “An employee may be required by the Board to administer medication or medical procedures to a student during the course of the employees employment.”

    • The word may in your sentence is used to indicate possibility. Therefore, the sentence implies that it is possible that the employee will be required to administer medication.

  44. Mittal Prajapati says:

    Fill in the blank.

    – I ___ go by car. [ can, may ]

    • Both answers are correct, however, they have different meanings.
      I can go by car means that I am able to go by car.
      I may go by car means that I might possibly go by car.

  45. Jacquelin Jackson says:

    I think may should be used when requesting something for yourself. For example, may I go to the restroom. It seems incorrect to use may when requesting that others do something. For example, May you give me some lunch. It seems that can would be more appropriate in this example.

    May I….
    Can you….


    • When requesting something for yourself, you are asking permission. Both can and may are commonly used interchangeably in respect to permission, especially in spoken English. We still recommend the use of may in a formal written context. When using the second person, the speaker is usually making a request, not asking permission. Therefore, can you, will you, or would you is preferred.

  46. Naga says:

    Can you please try now ?
    May you please try now?

    Which one is correct one.

  47. Rosy says:

    Which one of these is correct?

    1. May your happiness last forever? or
    2. May your happiness lasts forever?

    Please explain the reason for choosing 1 or 2?
    Also, What if we use “this” instead of your? as in “May this happiness last/lasts forever?


    • Sentence 1 is correct with a period at the end of the sentence instead of a question mark. The sentence requires last whether the subject is singular or plural because the complete verb in this case is the verb phrase may last. The same is true whether you use this or your.

  48. colette says:

    Is it correct to send a client an email that begins with ‘may you kindly’…confirm that you have received all information (for example). This does NOT sound right to me but i don’t know how to explain WHY.

  49. Employer says:

    My work teammate has incorrectly used ‘may’ a few times and I’d like a tip on how to correct her without embarrassing her. Here is her latest example, asking a vendor to provide her an update: May you have an update regarding the outcome?

  50. Employer says:

    Is the past tense of ‘to submit’ is always ‘submitted’?
    Ex: In the past, we’ve manually calculated and submit EEO-1 reports.
    I think this should be ‘submitted’ – is that correct?

  51. Cyndi says:

    I sent an email out to my two co-workers stating “may one of you please complete this task while I’m on PTO?” They keep stating to stop writing ‘May’. I just thought writing ‘May’ would be polite. Can someone please help me on this?

  52. Joyce says:

    I am 63 years old. When I was in high school my family and I, moved to a small town. There, I had the most wonderful, little, old lady as an English teacher. She used examples to help us remember which way was proper to use words. Can is asking. May is answering. Can I go to the store. Yes, you may. There is a commercial on television where I live now, that uses, with cheerleaders from a school, “yes you may”, as a distinctive answer. If he only knew he was telling people they might, and not can, he would fall over in his tracks! She also told us many other helpful hints and examples that I remember to this day. Oh, for the teachers of olde, that cared so much and knew how to help us remember. The longer we live, the less of the English language we lose. Since computers, because of the “facts” someone in the beginning entered as correct, we now have had to change the known dictionary to what they entered, instead of what was correct! And don’t teachers know how to teach kids about double negatives! IT MAKES A POSITIVE! I never had the chance to go to college, but still remember my little old, sweet English teacher that gave me enough knowledge to have been employed my whole life in jobs in which I used the knowledge she pumped into me as a teenager! Thanks to all the old-time, patient, stick-to-em, teachers that put up with so much and are paid so little. Just remember, I had a teacher that cared and I will never forget her. Just the same as you, younger ones, you will have kids, like me, that will never forget YOU for whatever you are putting into the kids now. One Grateful Student

  53. CJ says:

    Which is correct?

    You also may contact…


    You may also contact…

  54. regine says:

    is it correct to ask someone “may I know you?”

    • It is not usual for speakers of English to ask may I know you? or can I know you? These questions are not ungrammatical, but it is highly unlikely that you will ever hear or read either one.

  55. Joe Njoroge says:

    What do the sentence ‘May you have my logbook signed i pick it tomorrow’ mean, especially when written from a junior to a senior in a formal set up.
    Sometimes i feel the sentence is comanding, sometimes i feel it should be ‘could you please sign my logbook i pick it tomorrow?’ please help.

    • The person asking the question is making a request, not asking permission. Therefore, could you or will you is preferred. Also, the sentence is a run-on sentence and should be written as two sentences. The word will is used to indicate future tense in the second sentence.
      Could you please sign my logbook? I will pick it up tomorrow.

  56. joe says:

    My colleague writes “May you help me…”

    I’ve tried to explain that the word ‘may’ is about permission and that he’s asking whether I am permitted to help him, which is probably not what he intends to ask. I told him to use ‘would’ or ‘could’ instead of ‘may’. His response was that he would try to use the phrase ‘may you’ less often, which revealed he didn’t understand that it’s incorrect. He’s a native English speaker, so he should know better. The only thing I can think of to explain his thinking is that in school he might have asked his teacher, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ and the teacher gave him the usual ‘can vs. may’ lecture. But my colleague didn’t quite understand it and now substitutes ‘can’ with ‘may’ in all cases…

    The worst part is that he communicates with clients.

  57. Denise says:

    I am using the phrase: A Century of Helping Other. How Can We Help You? in an advertising campaign. On several occasions I’ve been asked if it the correct phrase should be: How May We Help You? I believe they are both correct because we are both making a request and asking permission. Your official word?

  58. Abdullah says:

    May I have your mobile number . is it correct sentence

  59. Seema says:

    Which one is correct. the students may distribute only sweets on their birthday. Or the students can distribute ….birthday when writing a note and restricting to distribute any other thing other than sweets

  60. Josh says:

    My 9-year-old has taken to asking for assistance with the word “may.” As in, “May you please pass the vegetables?” Clearly there’s been some corrective discourse at school about can and may that has been taken too much to heart. But this use is not correct, right?

    • The person asking the question is making a request, not asking permission. Therefore, could you or will you is preferred. Perhaps your nine-year-old is confusing this with May I please have more vegetables?

  61. Richard says:

    I think back to ” Mother may I” as some times being the guiding light.

  62. Kelly says:

    Is it incorrect to request permission in this manner?

    “May my submission be considered for late grading?”

    Thank you in advance!

  63. subro says:

    Is it possible to say ”Can i go out?”

    • 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. We still recommend the use of may in a formal context.

      • Evan says:

        Re: Your answer to Subro on Dec. 6, 2017.
        Your answer seems to indicate that it’s OK to speak grammatically incorrectly. Why encourage people? Although “can” and “may” are “commonly” used interchangeably with respect to permission, it is not right! Obviously, just because something is commonly done, it does not make it correct! I’m glad you at least added the comment that in formal circumstances, “may” is preferred. It should be preferred in all circumstances! Teach the right way all the time! Thank you.

        • Our goal is to help perpetuate properly written formal English. At the same time, we must concede the language’s fluidity and evolution, particularly as it applies to how it is spoken today. Our practice is to inform our readers as to what is currently considered acceptable and let them determine how to apply it in the right context. Subro’s question concerned spoken English; whether it was formal or informal was not specified.

          We often speak of grammar and punctuation in terms of “rules.” The truth is, there are some hard-and-fast rules, but much of it consists of “guidelines.”

  64. Amanda says:

    Two ladies at work consistently use the word may in the following way “May you (call the client….)”, “May you (find someone to do the shift)”, May you (order some stationary). Another colleague has told them that it is incorrect to use the word may and it should be can/would/could but they insist they are correct. Are they correct in their usage of May?

  65. Gwendolyn says:

    Please be reminded of your lacking requirements. You may submit those in our office from mondays to fridays.
    Please be reminded of your lacking requirements. You may submit it in our office from mondays to fridays.
    Please be reminded of your lacking requirements. You may submit them at our office from mondays to fridays.

    • First, we will focus only on the question you are asking. Since you are referring to the plural word “requirements,” either of the second sentences containing “those” or “them” would be consistent pronouns in referring to “requirements.”

      We are guessing that you may be trying to communicate something in the nature of:
      We are writing to remind you that your application (or paperwork) is incomplete. Please provide the remaining required information to our office Monday through Friday between _____ a.m. and ______ p.m.

  66. Jhennie says:

    Arranging a meeting, is it ok to ask:

    May we know who’s with you tomorrow?

    Thank you.

    • More grammatically, we recommend May we know who will be with you tomorrow?
      Some may feel a more courteous request to be May we ask who will be with you tomorrow?

  67. Rahul says:

    Please tell me which one is correct.
    May/Can you speak any foreign language?

  68. Martha Locke says:

    I was always taught “may” indicates a request, “can” indicates ability, which is why you wouldn’t say “can I?” unless, for example, you’re asking yourself or a doctor whether or not you are able physically/mentally/whatever to do a thing. You may decide you “can” (climb Mount Ranier) but you still might have to ask your parents permission (if you are 9 yrs old). Mother, may I? My parents might respond, “Yes, you can, but you may not.”

    Can indicates ability to do something, not a request.

    It’s subtle and may be out of date or old-fashioned but I’ll stick with the old way. For example if you’re posing a question “Can I do this?” vs “May I do this?” it’s ability vs ability/eligibility.

    • We agree with using can for ability and may for permission in formal situations, which are up to you to decide—with teachers, parents, work colleagues, etc. Simply be aware that English has many situations where what we’ve learned as rules could more accurately be called guidelines.

  69. Bill says:

    When I was a kid and asked my father, “Can I go out to play?” he would answer, “You may if you can.”

  70. Mary W. says:

    I recall from my parochial school education that when referring to permission, “may” should be used when speaking in the first person, and “can” should be used when speaking in the second and third person.

    • If we understand you correctly, you would follow this format:
      May I answer the question? This sounds fine to the ear.
      Can you answer the question? “May you answer the question?” does sound funny, but its inversion doesn’t: “You may answer the question.”
      Can she answer the question? “May she answer the question?” also sounds just fine to the ear and is solid grammatically.

      It seems that your parochial learning provided reasonable but incomplete guidance.

  71. Kent says:

    Why is it that when a group of people are intentionally looking for something, you hear a person say, “Let’s see if we can’t find a way to get the job done” vs what I always think should be worded, “Let’s see if we can find a way…” I hear this all the time and can never understand why the negative is used.

  72. Raji says:

    When someone asks you for a contact can we give the number and add that ”you may contact this person..”?

Leave a Reply to Bob Cancel reply

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *