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“Can” vs “May?” Is There A Difference?

Have you ever considered whether you should use “can” or “may?” When asking for permission, you may have said, “can I?” On the flip side, you may have heard people say, “may I?” With these two phrases in mind, is one more correct? And do “can I?” and “may I?” Mean the same thing? 

When Should You Use “Can” And “May?” 

Simply put, even though “can” and “may” don’t mean the same thing, they are often used interchangeably, especially in informal speech. Generally, if you want to simply ask for permission, “can” is fine. However, if you are in a formal setting or speaking to someone with authority, “may” is probably your best option. 

When looking at the in-depth meanings of these words, “can” usually means “have the ability to.” In contrast, “may” usually means “have permission to.” Due to their specified meanings, some people have a real issue with people asking if they “can” do something, as they are probably not asking if they have the physical ability to do it. 

Even though “may” is most likely the best option for you to use, both words work fine, and more people are starting to accept them in all settings! 

Examples From Inspiring English Sources

Ministers may want to sweep these events under the carpet, but the scars of the dispute and the subsequent closure programme remain on the memories, communities and landscapes of all coalfield communities. – The Guardian 

I know that many comedians think that there are no boundaries to what may be funny. They may be right. But funny is only part of the issue. Taste and concern for the feelings of others have a place, even in comedy. – The New York Times

“We’re working hard over the holiday period to make the necessary adjustments to our timetable as a consequence, and to provide as much information as we can. – The Guardian

Four years ago, Ivan Mladenovic didn’t want customers randomly dropping in to visit his computer repair and consulting shop. Who can blame him? He was running it from his kitchen. – The New York Times

How Did “May” Originate? 

May” is the word that came first and can be tracked back to the 8th century! Originally, it had a meaning that pertained to power and energy, but it later evolved into the idea of being physically/mentally able. 

Additionally, “may” also developed a meaning for the possibility of something happening. For instance: 

  • may or may not be ready to go to class today. 
  • may be able to schedule my appointment for later today! 

Lastly, as we know it today, “may” also developed the meaning of asking permission. 

How Did “Can” Originate? 

Shortly after “may” was coined, “can” began to develop in everyday speech. When it originated, it began as a verb that meant “to understand or know how to do something.” Later, it developed a meaning about having the ability to complete something. Finally, it also developed the meaning of getting permission, which is why it is often confused with “may.” 

In many early style guides (most coming from the early 1900s), a strong distinction made “may” the correct word one should use when asking for permission. Most sources agree that this distinction was made because “may” originated first, but it could also be because it sounds more formal. 

When tracked back to its original meaning, “can” may connect more to the idea of asking for permission. Additionally, it is often more popular, as it fits better with informal speech. In the end, picking whatever word sounds best to you or fits in with your writing style is probably best! 

The Subtleties Of The English language

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By Ryan Fisher

Ryan holds degrees from Pacific Lutheran University and specializes in proofreading, editing, and content writing with an emphasis on business communication.

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