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Can or May?

What Is the Difference between "Can" and "May"?

homeconfused wordsCan or May?
the quick answer

The Quick Answer

Use may for permission. For example:
  • May she swim?
  • (Is she permitted to swim?)
Use can for ability. For example:
  • Can she swim?
  • (Is she able to swim?)

Can and May

There is often confusion over the words can and may.

Can

The word can is used to denote ability. For example:
  • I can whistle.
  • (I have the ability to whistle.)
  • Can he lift 150 kgs?
  • (Does he have the ability to lift 150 kgs?)

May

The word may is used to denote permission. For example:
  • You may swim in this river.
  • (You are allowed to swim in this river.)
  • May I have a biscuit?
  • (Am I permitted to have a biscuit?)

Can for Permission (Informal Setting)

These days, the word can is used for both ability and permission, particularly in an informal setting. For example:
  • You can swim in this river.
  • (You are allowed to swim in this river.)
  • Can I have a biscuit?
  • (Am I permitted to have a biscuit?)

Use May for Permission in a Formal Setting

If you have a reason to be "uber correct" (e.g., you're hosting royalty or a very pedantic grandparent), you should use may to denote permission. For example:
  • May I leave the table?
  • (Am I permitted to leave the table?)
teachers note

A Note from Teacher

Can and May Are Auxiliary Verbs

Can is an auxiliary verb meaning to be able to. May is an auxiliary verb meaning to be permitted to.

"Can I go outside, grandma?"

"You can, dear. You're just not allowed."



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