"Can" vs. "May" in the English grammar

Can vs. May

May and can are modal verbs that are commonly used in the English language. In this lesson, we will learn their uses and differences.

"Can" vs. "May" in the English grammar

What Is Their Main Difference?

Modal verbs 'can' and 'may' are interchangeable on several common grounds; however, 'may' is politer and more formal than 'can.'

'Can' is a commonly known modal verb. It is mainly known to talk about abilities. It also helps us talk about possibilities, ask for permission, make requests, etc. We use 'can' to refer to the present and the future. Have a look:

I can read.

Can I call you?

'May' is a modal verb that is commonly used to talk about possibilities, ask or give permission, and express wishes. 'May' is mainly used in formal contexts. For example:

I may call him tonight.

You may leave us.

Similarities

Permission

We use 'can' and 'may' to give and ask for permission. 'May' is a politer and more formal way of doing so. For example:

Can I use your phone?

Here, we are asking for permission.

You can use my phone.

Here, we are giving permission.

May I join you?

Here, we are asking for permission.

You may join us.

Here, we are giving permission.

Possibilities

We use 'may' and 'can' to talk about actions and events that have a chance of occurrence. This can even include possible future events such as weather forecasts. Here are some examples:

It may rain tomorrow.

We may get to the train on time.

She can be the one who stole it.

Deduction

When we want to talk an opinion or a guess that is based upon available information, we use 'may' or the negative form of the modal verb 'can': 'Cannot.' Have a look:

She may leave around 10.

He cannot be her father. They look nothing alike.

Offers

We use the modal verb 'can' to make offers in either affirmative or interrogative form. We also use 'may' to offer things. 'May' is only used in the interrogative form and is followed by a first-person singular pronoun 'I' or first-person plural pronoun 'we.' 'May' is politer and much more formal than 'can.' Take a look at the following examples:

I can help you.

Can I help you?

May I help you?

Negation and Question

To make modal verbs such as 'may' and 'can' negative, we add 'not' to them. For example:

I can take you there. → I cannot take you there.

I may attend the party. → I may not attend the party.

In order to turn sentences with 'can' and 'may' into interrogative form, we simply invert them. Watch:

I can read without glasses. → Can I read without glasses.

I may help her. → May I help her? 

Differences

Earlier, you saw when we can use 'may' and 'can' to convey the same meaning. However, there are areas where we cannot replace them to show the same meaning.

Advice

We use the modal verb 'can' to express a certain way of doing something. In this context, we are suggesting a new perspective or offering a new route to solving an issue. Have a look:

You can start by apologizing to your sister.

You can read more books to expand your vocabulary.

Making Requests

We use 'can' to ask for things or favor in interrogative form. 'Can' is considered to be less formal so be careful when using it. Look at these examples:

Can you close the windows?

Can you turn off the music?

Wishes and Hopes

We use 'may' for making wishes, saying prayers, or expressing hopes. In this context, 'may' is usually placed at the beginning of the sentence. For example:

May his soul rest in peace.

May you achieve great levels in your life.

May the lord protect you.

Formality

'Can' and 'may' are used interchangeably in many cases, however, 'may' is used in formal contexts. Compare:

May I ask for a refund?

Can I ask for a refund?

Comments

  • linkedin
  • linkedin
  • facebook
  • facebook
  • email

You might also like

Modal Verbs vs. Normal Verbs

Normal verbs and modal verbs are different types of verbs that may confuse learners. In this lesson, we will learn their differences and uses.

Modal Verbs vs. Adverbs

Modal verbs and adverbs are used to give additional information about certain factors. In this lesson, we will learn their differences.

Can vs. Could

'Can' and 'could' are two of the most commonly known modal verbs. In this lesson, we will learn their differences and when to use each of them.

Can vs. Able to

'Can' and 'be able to' are both used to refer to abilities. In this lesson, we will learn their differences and when to use them.

Could vs. Would

'Could' and 'might' are modal verbs that help us express additional information. In this lesson, we will learn their uses and differences.

Could vs. May

'Could' and 'may' are modal verbs that are often mistaken since they are both used to ask for permission. In this lesson, we will learn when to use them.