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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 in respect to permission.

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 canít, rather than with may or may not, even if the question was formed using may. (Although maynít is a word, it looks and sounds strange even to native speakers.)

Example of Dialogue:
"May I go to the mall tonight?"
"No, you canít/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 is actually a shorthand way of saying "cannot help but." You may also hear the expression can but, which means "can only."

Example: We can but do our best to arrive on time.

Due to the E-Newsletter's large readership, we are unable to respond to individual English usage questions.

Pop Quiz

Choose the correct word in each sentence below. Scroll down to view answers.

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)

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Pop Quiz Answers


2.Can or May



She was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still.

No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.

When a clock is hungry, it goes back four seconds.


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