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'Can' Versus 'May'

Is it OK to ask “Can I...”?

By
Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
September 18, 2018
Can I or May I?

A listener named Donna says that after familiarizing herself with the definitions and usages of “can” and “may,” she still isn't sure which word to use in this sentence: “May we expect you tomorrow?” or “Can we expect you tomorrow?”

That's a tough one! 

Ability or Permission?

Once upon a time, in the land of strict grammar rules, “can” denoted physical or mental ability, and “may” denoted permission or authorization (1). It wasn't OK to use “can” if you were talking about permission. You could hear citizens of this land saying, “May I accompany you to the ball, Miss Fuzzywink?” and “Why of course you may, my dear.” This young lady perhaps would ask her suitor about his dancing ability: “Can you do the cha-cha?” and he would answer that he did have the ability: “Why of course I can, Miss Fuzzywink.”

'Can' Instead of Traditional 'May'

Nowadays, the rules aren’t so cut and dried. Since the second half of the 19th century, “can” has been used in informal contexts to denote permission (2). You’ve probably heard someone ask, “Can I go to the party?” If we lived in strict-grammar land, the authorities would complain about this usage, but these days it is acceptable to use “can” in this manner if you’re speaking informally (3). If you’re a teacher of young children, you probably often hear “Can I go to the bathroom?” Parents probably hear their children whining, “Can I have a cell phone?” So are the kids to blame for using “can” instead of “may”? Well, they just repeat what grown-ups say, and grown-ups are apparently moving away from the sometimes prissy-sounding “may.”

For example, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, the experts on its usage panel were more accepting of using “can” to mean “may” in a recent survey than they were in the past.

'May' Is OK

Now, “may” does have its rare place. If formality and politeness are of utmost importance, you should use “may” to denote permission. So it would be better to say to the waiter at a fancy restaurant, “May I have more water, please?” than “Can I have more water, please?” If you’ve just knocked on a door, you should probably say, “May I come in?”

Next: "Mayn't" and the Final Word on "Can" Versus "May"

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