CAN or MAY? The difference between CAN and MAY!

can vs may

Hero Asked on 24/03/2014 in English Grammar.
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CAN vs MAY

These are both modal verbs. Traditionally CAN means ‘be able to’ and MAY means ‘to be permitted’ or to express possibility, however, these days both CAN and MAY can be used interchangeably in respect to permission and ability.

Here are some examples:

  • He can run very fast. (He is able to run very fast)
  • He may win this race. (It is possible that he will win this race / He is permitted to win the race – although this is not very common)
  • He can/may take part in this race. (He is allowed to take part in the race. Permission is being given, regardless of which one you use)

 

Nowadays, CAN is used for both ability and permission, especially in an informal setting.

[Tweet “Nowadays, CAN is used for both ability and permission, especially in an informal setting.”]

  • Can I go to my friend’s party please? (Do I have permission to go to my friend’s party?)
  • You can go to your friend’s party. (You are allowed to go to your friend’s party)
  • I can understand how hard it must be for you. (I am able to understand how hard it must be for you.)

Read more:
Can vs Could vs Shall!
Can Could with Many Examples
Can vs Able To

 

You should use MAY, if you are in a formal situation such as a business meeting or with polite guests.

[Tweet “You should use MAY, if you are in a formal situation such as a business meeting or with polite guests.”]

  • May I show you my business proposal? (Am I permitted to show you my business proposal?)
  • May I suggest you try the dessert? It’s delicious. (If I’m allowed, I would like to recommend the dessert to you)
  • I may not have time complete this essay today. (It is possible that I won’t have time to complete this essay today.)

Read more:
Difference Between May and Might!
How to Express Good Wishes Using MAY

 

It is not common to use ‘may’ when making a request and using the pronoun ‘you’, instead you may use ‘could’, ‘can’, will or ‘would’.

  • Could you pass the salt please? (You cannot say ‘may you pass the salt?’)
  • Can you help me please? (You cannot say ‘may you help me please?’)
  • Will you clean this room please? (You cannot say ‘may you clean this room please?’)
  • Would you speak quietly please? We’re in a library. (You cannot say ‘may you speak quietly please?’)
Pro Editor Answered on 12/04/2014.
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