May vs. Shall

'May' and 'shall' are modal verbs confused by learners as both of them are used to make offers. In this lesson, we will learn their uses and differences.

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

What Is Their Main Difference?

The main difference between modal verbs 'may' and 'shall' is that 'may' talks about possibilities, while 'shall' talks about obligations.

'May' is a modal verb mainly used in formal contexts. It is used to give and ask for permission, talk about possibilities, and offers. Take a look at the following examples:

I may go on a vacation next week.

May I take tomorrow off?

'Shall' is a modal verb used to talk about necessities, give suggestions, and make offers. Have a look:

We shall leave at dawn.

Shall I close the door?

Similarities

Making Offers

'May' and 'shall' are used to make offers. Offers are statements used to show our willingness to do something. They are followed by first-person singular or plural pronoun (I and we). For instance:

May I hold your hand?

Shall I hold your hand?

Negation and Questions

Modal verbs can be used to create negative or interrogative sentences.
When we want to make a negative sentence, we add 'not' to the modal verb as shown in the pattern below:

  • MayMay not → Mayn't
  • ShallShall not → Shan't

Look at the following examples for clarity:

I may follow you. → I may not follow you.

I shall take you out for dinner. → I shall not take you out for dinner.

Questions are made through the inversion of the modal verbs with the subject. Take a look:

I may follow you. → May I follow you?

I shall take you out for dinner. → Shall I take you out for dinner?

With Other Modals

Modal verbs can be used with other verbs and auxiliary verbs but they cannot be used with another modal verb. We cannot have more than one modal verb in one clause. Take a look at these incorrect sentences:

I shall can help you out.

He may would burst out in tears.

Differences

Giving and Asking for Permission

We use 'may' to give and ask for permission to do something in a formal context. Take a look at the following dialogue:

Student : May I go out of the class?

Teacher : You may go out of the class.

Talking about Obligation

'Shall' is used to talk about formal obligation in documents and formal contexts. Have a look:

She shall give a speech at the ceremony.

They shall pay rent at the beginning of the month.

Talking about Possibilities

We use 'may' to show a chance of occurrence in the present and the future. In this case, we are not certain about the outcome. For instance:

She may accept your offer.

He may come to David's birthday.

Expressing Wishes

'May' is used at the beginning of the sentence to express wishes, condolences, or say prayers. Take a look at the following examples:

May he rest in peace.

May the lord bless your soul.

Talking about the Future

We use 'shall' instead of 'will' to talk about the future. We replace them only when the subject is 'I' or 'we.' Take a look a the following examples:

I shall never forget you.

We shall let them decide their path.

With Conditionals

'May' is used with conditionals type 1 to talk about real situations with real outcomes. These situations often have a high chance of occurrence. For example:

If you watch after your siblings, I may let you go to that party.

If you finish your homework, I may let you go out and play.

Tip!

You may hear 'shall' in conditional type 1 statements, but this usage is mainly dedicated to dialects.

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