Using “May” in a Question

By Maeve Maddox

Stephen Buck wants to explain to a non-native English speaker why the following question is not possible in standard English:

May you do this for me?”

The modal verb may has many uses. The OED entry gives 26 numbered definitions with numerous sub-sections. One of the definitions is this one:

may: Expressing permission or sanction: be allowed (to do something) by authority, law, rule, morality, reason, etc. Now somewhat rare exc. (Brit.) in asking and granting permission

In standard English, when may implies permission, it is used in the asking or granting of it:

May I use the car tonight?
I may not have a Facebook account; my parents have forbidden it.
You may go to the zoo with us.

While it is possible to use may to ask for permission or to grant permission, we use will or can when we want to ask someone to do something for us:

May I use your telephone?
You may stay out until 10 p.m.

BUT

Will you do this for me?
Can you do this for me?

We use will when we know that what we’re asking is within the power of the person being asked:

Will you hold the door while I unload?

We use can when there is some doubt that the person is able/has permission to do what is asked:

Can you authorize this payment?
Can you help me move this piano?

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16 Responses to “Using “May” in a Question”

  • Peter

    I may not have a Facebook account; my parents have forbidden it.
    You may go to the zoo with us.

    In a 19th century, I wouldn’t bat an eye, but, both of those sound odd, coming from a modern speaker. I want to interpret those “may”s as stating a possibility, not a permission (for which I would use “can”).

  • Peter

    a 19th century work

  • Peter

    (and I don’t know what went wrong with my commas. Sheesh!)

  • Vincent

    Really interesting!

  • Melody

    My teacher told me use “may “in your sentence is more polite

  • Charles Green

    How about ‘would’ in this context? I find it more polite to hear ‘Would you do this for me’ rather than ‘Will/Can you do this for me’.

  • Rod

    Can I use may and might for a likely future?
    I may/ might come tomorrow
    Where might I find Mr. Johnson’s office?
    other than this I think that questions with may and might are odd

  • Cecily

    “May not” is a common phrase, but like Peter, I think it’s often unclear whether it means “might not” or “absolutely must not”.

    The Facebook example is clarified by the second part of the sentence, but what about an example like this:

    “The colours of the trousers may not be the same as the colours of the jackets”.

  • Deborah H

    I had the most wonderful English teacher in the 7th and 8th grade (I salute Mrs. Elaine Lewis, where ever you are!) who quietly and kindly corrected every student in her class who asked, “Can I to go to the bathroom?” by responding with, “May I please be excused to go to the restroom?”

    It was a three-in-one-lesson: corrected usage, corrected word choice, and polite manners.

  • Vivian

    I am an ESL speaker and my English teacher always said to use could or maywhen making a polite request, e.g. “Could you do this for me, please?”

  • remonatrix

    Being polite is the correct idea here when I think of using “may”.

    Same thing goes for “enable” when suggesting a action a user can accomplish.

  • Maeve

    @ Deborah H

    Ah, the good old days!

    I recall correcting a student’s grammar in a high school classroom setting in about 1995. Something to do with pronouns. She retorted in some dudgeon, “I don’t talk that way!”

  • Rhett

    It is a fuzzy area. For me, the true distinction for using may,can, or will comes down to the definition of the words:
    – may: involving permission
    – can: involving ability; involving empowerment
    – will: involving the personal preference of the requested party.

    May I use the toilet? (right. asking permission)
    Can you come with me to the store? (right: asking ability)
    Will you help me? (right: asking preference)
    Can you help me?(may be right- if it’s regarding ability.)

    gosh, I love language.

  • Peach

    I can think of “may you” questions! What if a child asks another child “May you come over to play?” – in other words, are you *allowed* to come over to play, clearly different from the “can” and “will” versions.

  • Peter

    Rhett: but “can” also has exactly the same sense you’re giving for “may” (people who tell you “can I use the toilet” is wrong — and I know a lot of people do — simply don’t know what they’re talking about: tell them to get a dictionary). “It may rain” is stating a possibility, not granting permission, and the “may” in “it may rain, but I’ll be warm and dry in this coat” means “even if it should [rain]”. Similarly, “it will rain” is stating a fact about the future, not a preference.

  • Maeve

    @Peach
    I can’t think of a child who would say “May you come over to play?” For one thing, it’s not idiomatic. For another, when a child is asked to come over to play, ability depends upon parental permission so “can you” is appropriate.

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