Can Versus May
Is it OK to ask “Can I...”?
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“Mayn’t” Isn’t OK
Before we answer Donna’s question, let’s talk about denying permission: No, you may not turn off your listening device just yet. It’s possible to say the obscure contraction “mayn’t,” but I wouldn’t recommend it. That’s why one authority states that “educated people” typically say, “Can’t I?” instead of “Mayn’t I?” or “May I not?” (1). So if we were in the land of strict grammar rules, we might hear Miss Fuzzywink asking her governess, “But why can’t I go to the ball?” Even she probably wouldn’t say, “Why mayn’t I?” Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize “mayn’t” as a word. So “mayn’t” will probably be obsolete soon, if it isn’t already.
"Can" Versus "May"
Now we can ponder Donna’s question about “Can or may we expect you tomorrow?” We need to ask ourselves if the speaker is talking about ability or permission. I don’t think it’s talking about permission: “Are we allowed to expect you tomorrow?” No.
Neither does it seem to be talking about ability: “Are we mentally able to expect you tomorrow?” No.
I’ve ruminated on it for a while and I have a feeling that the word “might” would be better: “Might we expect you tomorrow?” Although this sentence is somewhat formal, I’m uncertain of the context. This opens up a whole avenue of discussion. Luckily, we’ve already covered the difference between “may” and “might.”
In the meantime, if we want to ask, “Are you coming tomorrow?” perhaps we should just say it that way. If I were forced to choose between “can” and “may,” I think I would say, “Can we expect you tomorrow?”
You may now discuss this conundrum among yourselves. You have my permission. Don’t worry, though, if you can’t figure it out. I don’t have the ability either. In short, it’s OK to use “can” instead of “may” if you’re speaking informally, but if you’re being formal or polite, use “may” when you’re speaking about authorization.
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
A note from Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty: I have a couple of things to thank you for! First, thank you for voting Grammar Girl the best education podcast of 2008 in the Podcast Awards. I'm truly honored. Second, thank you for writing all your pet peeves in the comments section two weeks ago. I'm going through them and thinking about the best way to choose a winner for biggest pet peeve of 2008.
1. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 124.
2. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 126.
3. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 74.