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Which word to use when we ask for help?

Some conditions:

  1. We know that the person asked is able to do it.
  2. We don't know if the person asked is able to do it.
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

As waiwai993 answered, Can/May/Will have different meanings. However asking someone if they can help you usually implies that you would like their help, and it gives the person an opportunity to decline without being rude. Maybe they are able to help in theory, but can't right now because they are too busy. In that case they can say that they can't help. If they simply don't want to help they can just decline without a reason. So I would always use "Can you help me with this" or "Could you help me with this" unless I needed a more specific case (such as I KNOW that they CAN, but I am forcing to answer whether they WILL or not, or I know that they are ABLE, but maybe their mother won't let them*).

* Note: I think it's very unusual to use "May you help me" and would probably never say that under any circumstances, unless I was trying to be ironic.

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I would actually offer a couple additional options:

Under condition 1 (that you know that the person is able to help, but you're unsure if they will):

Would you help me with this?

Under condition 2 (you're unsure if that person is able to help):

Could you help me with this?

These are similar in meaning to will and can respectively, but are a more polite way of asking. I would especially recommend these if you're in more formal setting, talking to strangers, etc.

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+1 to "'Could' you help me with this?" – JFW Nov 11 '10 at 8:06
No comment on the down vote? – Dusty Nov 12 '10 at 15:17

Can you help me with this?

Technically, this asks if it is physically possible for the other person to help. However, it is commonly used to mean "Will you help me with this?"

May you help me with this?

This is equivalent to "Are you permitted to help me with this?"

Will you help me with this?

This is the one you probably want—it basically asks whether or not the other person is going to help.

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"May you help me with this?" sounds very strange to my (British English) ears. – Steve Melnikoff Nov 11 '10 at 12:56
same to my American English ears. Someone when asking me to do something said "May you upload the files now?" just sounds strange. but it's true, if I was working for a secret government base and I needed permission, then that could make sense. – Claudiu Nov 11 '10 at 15:43
Yes: "May" contrasts with "Can" in the first person, and generations of children have been told off for saying "Can I" when grown-ups held that they should have been saying "May I". But in the second person, "May you" is very unusual. – Colin Fine Nov 11 '10 at 18:08
@Colin Interestingly, it also contrasts with "Can" in the third person. E.g. "May Johnny come out to play?" vs. "Can Johnny come out to play". But I agree, in second person it's just odd. – Dusty Nov 11 '10 at 23:00
You're right, and of course this is where "may you" often comes from: children have it drummed into them that they shouldn't say "can", so they avoid saying "can you". – Colin Fine Nov 12 '10 at 13:06

As for me, I sometimes feel a bit shy talking to people, so I prefer polite variants like:

Can you please help me with...?


Can I ask you for help with...?

Or you can just say:

I need your help.

I don't have much experience in communication with English-speakers, but I think those variants can be used in different situations.

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May implies that you are asking for permission. Can implies that you are questioning somebody's ability. Will implies that you are seeking an answer about the future.

– Can you lift this?
– May we go to the mall?
– Will you call me?

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This is true in the contexts you exemplify, but in OP's context the auxiliaries can and will are taken as polite variants, equivalent to "please" – StoneyB Nov 23 '12 at 21:48

Why not ask etymology for some help here?

"Can" and "could" come from Proto-Germanic *kunnan, “to be mentally able, to have learnt”, says the Online Etymology Dictionary.

"May" and "might" come from Proto-Germanic root *mag-, infinitivie *maganan, from Proto-Indo-European *magh-, “to be able, have power”.

So, "can/could" is about ability proper, the ability to do things for yourself, knowing how to do them,


"may/might"is more about power, the position a person is in which entitles them to grant or refuse you permission to do something; it is highly hierarchical.

So, "Can I go to the bathroom?", etymologically, is not really appropriate for asking permission as it means something like "Do you think I know how to go to the bathroom?" Rude, even!

On the other hand, "May I go to the bathroom?", etymologically again, means something like "Would your highness allow me to go to the bathroom?" and, in the classless world we live in (?) we are not really ready to your-highness anyone if we can avoid it! Well, little children cannot really avoid it for a question of stature, but when you have grown up, using "may" is felt as humbling, if not humiliating yourself, as if you were kneeling in front of someone.

A middle ground between rudeness and humiliation, which can satisfy both the speaker and the listener, is found in "Could I go to the bathroom?"

Using the modal "can" in the conditional, 'unrealising' the present, making it hypothetical, dampens the shock. I am asking about objective conditions (do you think I know how to) but using the conditional instead of the present puts more emphasis on the listener, on their ability to assess the situation, which is a tacit acknowledgement of their authority. It is give-and-take!

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protected by Will Hunting Nov 23 '12 at 20:10

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