Can vs. May

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Can and may belong to a category of verbs variously referred to as auxiliary, helping, modal, and defective. They are linguistic fossils, deriving from Old English conjugations that have dwindled through time to only one or two forms.

May and its past form might come from OE magan, “may, to be able.” In modern English, may sometimes carries the sense of expressing permission. Some parents still teach their children to make requests with the word may rather than can. The routine goes like this:

Child: Mother, can I play outside?
Mother: I’m sure you can play outside. The question is, “May you?”
Child: May I play outside?
Mother: Yes, you may.

In present tense, may and might are almost interchangeable. A subtle difference is that may can indicate a more likely possibility than might. For example, consider the following sentences:
“I may go to Billy’s game.”
“I might go to Billy’s game.”

The use of may suggests a greater possibility than might. The first speaker, for example, may be a parent, while the second speaker may have little interest either in sports or in Billy and is merely being polite.

Either may or might is acceptable in the present tense; in the past tense, might is almost always going to be the correct choice. For example, “He might have won the election if he hadn’t been so truthful.” The present form may could be used to indicate uncertainty about something that may or may not have happened in the past: “She may have intended a compliment when she said that about your hair.” When in doubt, use might.

Can and could derive from OE cunnan, “to be able.” Present tense can conveys possibility and ability: “I can help with the painting.” It can also be used to make a statement about the future: “I can help you with the painting tomorrow.”

Can is often used to pose a question that is really a strong request or command: “Can you stop your whining and just do your work?” “Can you hold the door for me?”

Could is used in the past tense to talk about past ability or possibility. For example, “I could recite the alphabet before my older brother.” “You could have taken a short cut and arrived before the others.”

Could can also be used in the present tense to couch a request: “Could you please tell me where I can park?”

Can, could, may, and might all take the bare infinitive:

“I can remember everything.”
“I could wish for a second chance.”
“She may go to New Orleans next year.”
“They might spend the night in Joplin.”

Note: In its most recognizable form, the English infinitive is written with the particle to in front of it: to go, to sing, to feel, to believe. This is called the “full infinitive.” When written without the to, it’s called the “bare infinitive.” The bare infinitive is sometimes called the “zero infinitive.”

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9 thoughts on “Can vs. May”

  1. Regarding Can vs. May, as a Yankee who moved to Georgia many years ago I have learned to love the phrase “might could” among many other southern expressions. I can’t quite define it but it would be used like this. “Would you like to go to the dance with me?” Reply; “I might could.” I think it means “I could if I wanted to” but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, it certainly combines both Can and May with a twist.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’ve been writing professionally for more than 25 years and still must pause at times when editing to review all my cans, coulds, mays, mights, shoulds, wills, and so on.

  3. Thanks Maddox for this excellent blog post.. i really want to know more about using simple English to phrase excellent articles. Thanks for the examples. i do appreciate it.

  4. “Can” and “may” are “linguistic fossils.” I love that description. I feel like a linguistic fossil myself. I use “may” when I am making a request. “May I use your car this afternoon?”

    My grown children sound like little kids when they order at a restaurant. “Could I have the gnocchi?” Or worse: “Can I get the “gnocchi?” I wouldn’t mind it at all if the waiter would respond, “I don’t know.. Can you?”

  5. The following sentence, quoted from the article above, is not correct at all:
    Could can also be used in the present tense to couch a request: “Could you please tell me where I can park?”

    The word “could” in the example is not in the past tense at all.
    The “could” is in the subjunctive mood, and to be more precise,
    it is in the present subjunctive mood or the future subjunctive mood.

    When you say that a certain verb is in the “present tense”, the understanding is that it is in the present indicative mood unless you state otherwise. Verbs in the interrogatory mood are shown to be thus by using a question mark. Verbs in the imperative mood are shown to be thus by using an exclamation point, such as “Stop in the name of the law!”

  6. I do not think that “can” and “may” are linguistic fossils.

    English has a full complement of “modal auxiliary verbs” except that we have the unfortunate practice of not calling them that. English has modal auxiliary verbs that are used in the present tense and the past tense, and one that is indicative of the future tense. Also, in English some of the same modal auxiliaries are used in the indicative mood, the interrogatory mood, in the subjunctive mood, and in the imperative mood. I will leave it up to you to sort out which ones are which, and now I will just list modal auxilaries of various types:
    can, could, have, had, let, may, might, must, shall, should, want, will, would, wish.

    In many languages, including German, there are two different forms of the subjuntive mood, but in English one of these varieties has dwindled down to only one or two verbs, including “let”.
    Most people do not understand that sentences like “Let him be fed to the sharks” is in one of the subjunctive moods because of the distinct possibility that this command will be countermanded.

    In German, there is a whole family of modal auxiliary verbs that is taught as model auxiliaries, and when you look at them, you can see how they look like the auxiliary verb in modern English:
    durfen, haben, konnen, lassen, magen, mochten, mogen, sollen, wollen, wunchten.
    The word “mochten” is an unusual one because it is used A LOT, but its conjugation puts it in the subjunctive mood.

  7. As far as I am concerned “can” implies ability to do something, e.g. “can you swim?” “May” is used either to ask permission e.g. “Dad, may I go swimming next Saturday?” or to express possibility e.g. “I may go swimming if the weather is fine.”

    “Can” an “Could” are sometimes used as ultra polite ways of making a request. For example “Could you open the window, please?” or “Can you open the window. please?” where the real question is not whether the addressee is able to open the window but whether they are willing to do so.

    Like D.A.W. I don’t see these as linguistic fossils. They are still in general use. They are not archaic or obsolete.

  8. German also has polite ways to saying thing – ways that use the subjunctive mood, usually the word “mochten”. This is the present subjunctive of “mogen” – which does have an umlaut over the “o”.
    When addressing a server of food and drink, the sentence “Ich mochte Apfelsafte haben” means “I would like to have apple juice.”

    On the other hand, to say it rudely would be “Ich will Apfelsafte haben,” which means “I want to have apple juice.”
    The word “will” exists in both English and in German, but their meanings are different. In other words, they are false cognates. The German verb “will” is a conjugated form of the irregular verb “wollen”, which means “to want”.

    I guess that this one would not be quite so rude: “Ich wunche Apfelsafte haben”, which means “I wish to have apple juice.”

    This sentence might be more fun: “Ich mochte ein Glas Bier haben,” which means “I would like to have a glass of beer.”

  9. According to the Oxford dictionary: CAN can be used for ability to perform something AND permission. MAY is used for permission, and it is the formal way of asking for permission. Case closed

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