Posted by: episystechpubs | May 11, 2015

Editor’s Corner: Can versus May

A good Monday to you all!

Last week someone asked me to explain the difference between can versus may. After some research, I’m surprised to say that more and more sources say that they can be used interchangeably with regards to permission.

But I hear the grade school teacher in my brain and smart aleck kids responding to the question, “Can I use the restroom?” with “I don’t know. Can you?” Here is the traditional differentiation between the two.

Can is generally translated as “to be able,” thus the hazing you get when you are intending to mean “Do I have permission to use the restroom?” and the listeners are translating that as “Am I able to use the restroom?” Can is considered less formal or polite, too.

May has been used traditionally to mean “to be permitted” or to indicate the possibility of something. It is considered the polite way to ask for permission.

Here are some examples and additional information from the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation:

Example: He can hold his breath for 30 seconds.

Meaning: He is able to hold his breath for 30 seconds.

Example: He may hold his breath for 30 seconds.

Meaning #1: It is possible that he will hold his breath.

Meaning #2: He has permission to hold his breath. (This meaning is unlikely.)

Example: May/Can I go to the mall tonight?

In spoken English, a request for permission is generally answered with can, cannot, or can’t, rather than with may or may not, even if the question was formed using may. (Although mayn’t is a word, it looks and sounds strange even to native speakers.)

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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  1. That’s so right! I still remember my PHYSICS teacher (in class 9th) check each and every one of the students for using can instead of may while taking permission to visit the washroom!

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