Can Versus May

A while back, Grammar Girl received a rather snooty comment about the use of "can" versus "may."

Adam Lowe,
August 12, 2007

A while back, Grammar Girl received a rather snooty comment about the use of "can" versus "may."  We did do an episode on correcting other people's grammar, and we'll put a link to that episode up in the transcript.  But today, we'll step into Grammar Girl's territory a little bit to address the use of "can" and "may."

Let's say that you are a three-hundred pound Olympic power-lifter, and you are boarding an airplane.  You see a petite, elderly person in front of you struggling to get a small case into the overhead compartment.  You ask the elderly gentleman, "Can I help you with your case?" and he replies, "Although I am not an expert in physics or physiology, I think you probably could lift this case," and continues struggling.  Now let's say you try it again, but this time you ask, "May I help you with your case?" and the gentleman gratefully replies, "Oh, yes! I do need a little help, and you are so kind to offer your assistance!" 

Of course this example is only to make a point: that "can" and "may" have different meanings.  The verb "can" roughly means to be able to do something, while "may" in this case means to have permission to do it.  So if you ask someone if you can do something it's like asking, "In your opinion, do you think I am able to do this?" while if you ask if you may do it, it's like asking, "Would it be OK with you if I did this?"

Now, back in the real world, the most important thing is that you did offer to hold a door, lift a package, rescue the cat from a tree, or help in some way.  It is certainly an added benefit if you can speak politely and with good grammar while you do it, but the most important thing is your kind offer to help. 

So remember, if you want to be on your best manners and grammar, ask questions like, "May I take your coat for you?" or, "May I clear your plate?" or, "May I pet your dog?"

So may all your days be filled with kind gestures, and thank you for listening to quick and dirty tips for a more polite life.

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Overhead Luggage image courtesy of Shutterstock