Posted by: Jack Henry | April 3, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Can I or May I?

Good Monday morning, esteemed readers.

I know many of you will remember being chastised when you incorrectly asked your mean old Aunt Ola (or whatever her name was), “Can I have another cookie?” She probably was too stingy to give you another cookie, but she took pleasure in rubbing your nose in your grammatical mistake. She always said something like, “I’m sure you are able to eat many more cookies, Donna, but you may not have another one today.”

As you have probably guessed, the correctly worded question is “May I have another cookie?”—and I have unresolved issues with Aunt Ola.

It is interesting to note that, at least in professional writing, we often make the opposite mistake. We often use the verb may when we should use can.

For example, I often see sentences like this one: “You may run the programs in any order.” This sentence is incorrect, because rather than giving our clients permission, we mean to tell them that they are able to run the programs in whatever order they choose. My theory is that we think may sounds more polite.

To get it right, all you have to remember is you should use can when asking for or indicating the ability to do something:

· Can your brother keep a secret?

· Fido can beat Spot on the agility course.

You should use the word may, on the other hand, when you want to ask or give permission:

· May I have another cookie, you old coot?

· You may borrow my car while yours is in the shop.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Extension: 765432

Symitar Technical Publications Writing and Editing Requests

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  1. […] Last Monday, I shared a story about asking my Aunt Ola for cookies. She educated me on the difference between the words can and may. […]

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