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Can/May/Will you help me with this?

Which is correct if I want to request for a pen?

  • Can I have your pen please?
  • May I have your pen please?
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, jwpat7, kiamlaluno, simchona, Mitch Jan 12 '12 at 18:37

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

For one, can is more informal; may is formal. The school marm can't let you say Can I, and your friends may not like it if you say May I. – Kris Jan 11 '12 at 7:32
"May I" is correct, but most native speakers say "can I" when asking for permission. It may be true that "two wrongs don't make a right", but one billion wrongs do. It's similar to theft: steal US$1000 & you'll go to jail for at least a year because it's a felony; steal US$100,000,000 & you become a celebrity. When one person dies, it's a tragedy; when thousands die, it's a statistic. Kill one man & you're a murderer; kill 1000 & you're a war hero. Might makes right. There's no getting around it unless you close your eyes & ears, which is what most people do all the time: cognitive dissonance. – user21497 Jan 4 '13 at 8:38
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Can primarily expresses possibility and ability and, secondarily, permission. May expresses primarily possibility and, secondarily, permision and volition. In seeking permission, as in your examples, the use of may is much more formal and polite than can and is used rather less.

However, both 'Can I have your pen please?' and 'May I have your pen please?' are blunt ways of making a request. In practice, a native speaker, at least of British English, is much more likely to say something like 'You don't happen to have a pen I could borrow, do you?'

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'You don't happen to have a pen I could borrow, do you?' would give the person enough time to think, rethink and decide otherwise than to risk it, perhaps? – Kris Jan 12 '12 at 5:08
@Kris: Perhaps. – Barrie England Jan 12 '12 at 7:45

NOAD has a usage note that reads:

Is there any difference between can and may when used to request or express permission, as in : may I ask you a few questions? or : can I ask you a few questions? It is still widely held that using can for permission is somehow incorrect and that it should be reserved for expressions denoting capability, as in : can you swim? Although the use of the 'permission' sense of can is not regarded as incorrect in standard English, there is a clear difference in formality between the two verbs: may is, generally speaking, a more polite way of asking for something and is the better choice in more formal contexts.

I suspect many other English dictionaries have similar notes under their entries for may or can.

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It's "May I have your pen please". When you use can, you are asking if you have the ability to have the pen. But when you use may, you are asking for permission to have the pen.

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This is misleading. Both are used to seek permission, but may is much more formal than can. – Barrie England Jan 4 '13 at 8:13
The English is also misleading. Does anyone really mean what they say or say what they mean? Don't answer that. It's not only a rhetorical question, but it assumes that the answer doesn't really matter. – user21497 Jan 4 '13 at 8:41
I agree with @Barrie. Say may instead of can, and you risk sounding pompous. Say can instead of may, and you risk sounding uneducated. Both are used; one may be more "correct," but the other is more common – make your choice accordingly. As a side note, if Kari's answer is the correct one, then this is a general reference question. However, our ensuing discussion takes this away from the realm of general reference, and into the realm of usage. – J.R. Jan 4 '13 at 10:05

"Can I" refers more to the ability or inability to accomplish a task: "Would it be possible for me to actually have your pen in my possession" whereas "May I" would lean towards permission for the task: "Will you grant me the permission of taking your pen".

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-1 In OP's examples, can and may mean exactly the same thing -- related to permission; ability is not a factor. In fact, in the sense of being able to, the question Can I would be entirely different from what is implied here. – Kris Jan 11 '12 at 9:08
Actually, even "Is it possible for me to have your pen?" (the literal meaning of 'can') would be interpreted as a request for the pen by native English speakers. – Peter Shor Jan 11 '12 at 12:26
My high school headmaster who also was the senior English teacher illustrated the difference when someone asked "Can I do X?" where X was something that was not ordinarily permitted under school rules. The response was "You can but you may not." So, "May I use your pen, please?" (note: not "have" which could be taken to mean that you intend to keep the pen forever; indeed, "borrow" would be even better than "use") is how I would phrase it. "Can I have your pen, please?" is not only blunt as Barrie England points out, but could be used by a polite robber or strong-arm person. – Dilip Sarwate Jan 11 '12 at 13:37
@DilipSarwate +1 for 'a polite robber', true. – Kris Jan 12 '12 at 5:05

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