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When I went to school I was taught that when asking for something you use "may I (have/do something)". "Can" was used only when asking if you are "physically capable" of something.

These days I have a feeling that you can also use "can" where we would formerly use "may".

I know the rules on "can/may" hasn't changed formally, but has there been a change in usage of the two?

Do schools still teach pupils to ask for things with "may"?

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I guess that one answers it to some extent... Thanks –  masarah Apr 23 '11 at 10:18
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No, I don't think its adequately answered myself! (That's why I haven't accepted an answer.) I'm hoping you get some responses, and maybe someone peeks at my question too ;) –  Uticensis Apr 23 '11 at 10:23
    
I'd like to hear the opinion from someone from the UK on this. :D –  Alenanno Apr 23 '11 at 11:24
    
I would like both the American answer, the British, and very well the Australian and Canadian as well:) Billare: thank you, now I see you only put "related" :) –  masarah Apr 23 '11 at 14:21

5 Answers 5

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The enforced usage of "may" instead of "can" is old-fashioned and school-marmish. In all but the most stilted conversations, people ask for permission using can instead of may.

Can I get a little help here?

Can I borrow your car?

Can I take you to dinner Friday night?

All those are fine usages, and no one but a ninny would attempt to correct you for using any of them. On the other hand,

May I get a little help here?

May I borrow your car?

May I take you to dinner Friday night?

sounds more formal, with an extra dollop of politeness. One might even say that the dollop is not so much politeness as fussiness. Using "may" instead of "I" is fussy at best, hyper-corrective at worst. In my own case, I hardly ever use the construction except somewhat sarcastically, as in the following sort of situation:

Me: Do you have an extra pencil?

Co-worker: Yes.

[Pause while nothing happens.]

Me: Do you have it with you?

Co-worker: Yes.

[Further pause, while co-worker does nothing to produce a pencil]

Me: [Impatient at co-worker's coyness] May I borrow it, please?

In the above exchange I am using may instead of can because my co-worker is kidding around [she should have understood my initial question as a request to borrow a pencil, but is playing a little game] and I wish to speak to her as one might to a child.

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I agree that can be frustrating (the bit about the coworker) especially if they overdo it. Once in a while is funny, but too much just kills it. I also find this to be the case with the word "or". Being a programmer, "or" means something very specific: Say someone asks if you want "carrots or corn." Normal people would respond with either "carrots" or "corn". Us programming nerds say "yes" (to indicate our desired selection was in the list) or "no" (indicating we want something not listed.) I stopped doing this about when I got married and realized the joke was on me later in the evening. –  corsiKa Apr 23 '11 at 22:21

Only just discovered this site - what an awesome site!

I'm in the UK, and my wife and I still correct our 4 children if they use "can I..." instead of "may I". Their grandparents correct them too!

The reason I'm not a fan of the slippage into "can I..." territory is that I see it as part of a general trend to focus more and more on one's self than other people. "Can I" is all about me, "may I" is asking the other person's permission. It reminds me of the response "I'm ok" when someone is asked if they would like more to eat etc... It always makes me think "I'm glad you're ok, but would you please respond to my question?!"...

Therefore I will continue to use the structure "may I" until my dying breath, and will encourage my children to do the same!

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Very nice. Thank you for this answer, I really liked it. Just one thing: how would you like people to respond to "would you like more to eat?" Just curious. :) –  masarah Apr 23 '11 at 14:26
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@Masarah I would assume "Yes, please" or "No, thank you." While I don't necessarily see anything wrong with "I'm okay" I do sympathize with the frustration of dodging the answer. Consider my wife asking "Do you think we should re-paint the house?" and I respond with "It is getting a little chipped isn't it." Hmm, I don't really seem to have answered her question. Only when I start to head for the garage have I really answered her question. And even then I could just be getting something from the car, so I still haven't answered it! –  corsiKa Apr 23 '11 at 22:26
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@glowcoder - exactly right, "yes, please" or "no, thank you"! –  h4xxr Apr 24 '11 at 0:47

Masarah: When I went to school I was taught that when asking for something you use "may I (have/do something)". "Can" was used only when asking if you are "physically capable" of something.

You're not old enough, Masarah, for that to have been a fact. It was a piece of fiction that you were taught then and it is a piece of fiction that is still being taught today.

This, below, from the 1828 edition of Websters Dictionary:

  1. To be possible. Nicodemus said, How can these thing be? John 3.

http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,can

  1. To be able; to have sufficient strength or physical power. One man can lift a weight which another can not. A horse can run a certain distance in a given time.

Even the definition and meanings for 'to be able', can be glossed/understood as "it is possible that ... "

"Can I", used for permission, expresses exactly the same thing that 'may' expresses, ie. "Is it possible for me to ..." It has nothing to do with ability/capability. That was a fatuous notion made up by someone who had no idea of the meanings that the modal verb 'can' has/has had in English.

Back in 1828, 'can', as this entry shows, had the meaning of permissable.

  1. To have just or legal competent power, that is, right; to be free from any restraint of moral, civil or political obligation, or from any positive prohibition. We can use a highway for travel, for this is permitted by law. A man can or cannot hold an office. The Jews could not eat certain kinds of animals which were declared to be unclean. The House of Commons in England can impeach, but the House of Lords only can try impeachments. In general, we can do whatever neither the laws of God nor of man forbid.

All anyone had/has to do was/is consult a dictionary to know that this idea is false.

Yes, 'may' is more polite, but people who demand this level of politeness, even for children, for all situations, are not being realistic for they don't demand that same level of politeness for all other situations. Nor do they demand that the even more polite, 'might' be used.

As soon as these folks have corrected their kids, or someone else, they turn around and use 'can' to ask permission of others. As with so many fatuous rules, they are trying to enforce a myth, a prescription. Kids are bright enough to realize this which is why prescriptions/myths simply don't take. They are, as Steven Pinker says, "bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since".

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From Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act I, Scene 4:

Can we, with manners, ask what was the difference?

From Shakespeare, All's Well that Ends Well, Act I, Scene 1:

Ay. You have some stain of soldier in you: let me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?

If this distinction was ever a part of English grammar, it wasn't when Shakespeare was writing.

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I'd like to add something to the other answers here.

If I'm asking someone else to do so something, I phrase it that way.

Could you help me?

Would you have dinner with me?

Can or will would sound too abrupt, perhaps even rude. But I don't think there is any need for extra politeness when asking for permission, e.g.:

Can I open the window?

I agree with Robusto that may I I sounds a little old-fashioned here.

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Good point about rephrasing. –  masarah Apr 23 '11 at 15:06

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