Commonly Confused Words: Can vs. May

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Last week we looked at the difference between may and might. Another word people often worry about confusing with may is can. Read on to find out when to use which word.

What does each word mean?

  • Can means ‘to be able to’. In a question, can might be used to ask about a capability, to ask someone to do something, or to ask for permission. Its past tense form is could.

    Here is can used in some example questions:
    • Can his brother speak French too? (asks about capability)
    • Can you pass the salt? (requests someone to do something)
    • Can I go to the toilet? (asks for permission)
  • As we explained last week, may is used to express possibility. The word is also used as a verb for requesting and giving permission – and it is this definition that confuses people.

    Here is may used in some example sentences:
    • May I go to the toilet?
    • You may watch TV after you’ve finished your homework.

So when should I use which?

Have you ever had a teacher who refused to excuse you from the classroom until you asked using may instead of can?

This is because many people (including teachers!) insist that can should be reserved for talking about ability, while may should be used when asking for or giving permission.

Actually, in the context of requesting or giving permission, both words are acceptable in Standard English. The main difference between the two words is that may is considered more polite.

Are there any tricks to help remember the difference between these words?

If you’d like to differentiate between can and may (we recommend you do so more formal situations), use the following mnemonics to help you remember when to use which word:

  • Think of the word ‘capable’ to help you remember that can means ‘to be able to’ – both words begin with C.
  • Think of this sentence to help you remember to use may when requesting permission: “May I have another can of Pepsi?” The word can should only appear in the sentence once.



Why not check out some of other posts about easy-to-confuse words?

20 Oct 2015
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