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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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August 21, 2006


Aaron Nelson

Hi Lynn,
This is great stuff! You likely can appreciate how tricky our language can be in that you get into trying to explain it to others during your workshops. Can and May are very common problem creators with my English students, and it's usually a monster to try and explain. I liked your explanation, and I'll be saving it to maybe make things easier on my students.

One thing is explaining to a native english speaker, another thing is trying to do it with folks who are trying to learn it as a second language...the whole dynamic changes. Your post will be a very useful tool - thanks!

Aaron in Mexico City


Aaron, I always like to hear your reactions and challenges. Let me know if you want me to write about any particular topics.


I'm so glad I happened across this post with the Google-search, "can vs. may"! Now that I grasp it, I'm sure I *can* use each properly; I *may* even be able to explain it to others! *May* I link to this post as a reference?


Caen, thanks for the comment. Yes, you may link--if you can!


looks like you're right


lol i'm trying to write an university essay on that ... :D


Thanks for the explanation. I have a 16 year old Godson that insists it's "may you pass me the ketchup" and his cousin who says "may you give me the money to buy my own clothes". Both are incorrect are they not?

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

"May you" is incorrect. Please see my post "Show Me the Manual." (Insert that title in the Google search box, and you will find the post.)



Very informative.


Hehe, thanks for this!

My language is not perfect and I allways keep trying to make it better :)


Good stuff. Thanks for this.


Which is correct when answering the phone (business): (1) How CAN I help you? (2) How MAY I help you?

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Betty. I prefer "How may I help you?" It seems to express the idea of "How am I permitted to help you?" along with the possibility of helping you.

At the same time, I would not criticize "How can I help you?" meaning "How am I able to you?"

I would just be happy to be helped!



Which is correct:
ONLY Social Workers can join this group.
ONLY Social Workers may join this group.

(All the members of the group are Social Workers)

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

"Only social workers may join this group." It refers to permission--not physical ability.



Thank you, Lynn

Mary Layton

For possibility, an old journalism rule is to use "might" instead of "may". Just discovered your posts and love it.


Thank you!! I am rewriting some bylaws for a non-profit that I belong to, and just hit the wall when I saw a "may" that didn't feel quite right. Thank you for helping "climb" over that wall!! 8-)

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

You are very welcome! I am happy to have helped you over the wall.



I am editing a document where the writer is consistently using "may"...ex:running the routine may generate errors. I keep changing it to "can" as far as I'm concerned, running the routine has the ability to generate errors. However, according to your post, there is the "possibility" to generate errors. Who's correct? May didn't sound right to me for this technical document, and there are a lot of "mays".

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hello, Basia. I believe the intended meaning has to do with possibility--not physical ability. Therefore, I would choose "may."



My boss is waiting for a update from me to do somithing. Once I am done, shall I reply him

Yes its completed. You may proceed now.


Yes its completed. You can proceed now.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

I would use "may" in your situation.

I choose "may" because you are, in essence, saying that the situation permits your boss to proceed.


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