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I need to add a small piece of help text to a search field in an online form.

The placeholder text (grey text inside the text field) says "Type at least three characters". Then directly under the text field is either:

You can enter a name or an address.


You may enter a name or an address.

Which is preferred? I want to let people know that they can search by name or address.

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possible duplicate of may not vs can not on websites – FumbleFingers Jun 4 '12 at 16:11
up vote 2 down vote accepted

There's no essential difference, although some users may perceive "may" to be slightly more formal and polite than "can". But assuming that you require the user's name or the user's address, (not just any old name or address), you could consider:

  • Please enter either your name or your address.

Depending on what you intend to do with the input, you may then also need to specify whether you want the full name and full address. But your placeholder text appears to indicate that, in fact, any input greater than 3 characters will meet your needs.

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Although some UI designers may prefer to avoid "Please" because it's a bit 'overpolite' or 'wishy-washy' for what at the end of the day is an obligation if the user wants to use the software. – Neil Coffey Jun 4 '12 at 9:53
@Neil, You're right. "Please" is probably better used in an alert message if the user tries to submit the form without entering text into the box, rather than in the default instruction. – Shoe Jun 4 '12 at 13:16
Thanks. It's actually a search box, and I want to let the user know they can search by name or address. – Andrew Jun 6 '12 at 4:57
@Andrew, Then I would use can, or simply: Enter a name or address." – Shoe Jun 6 '12 at 5:07
Thanks, decided to use Enter a name or address. – Andrew Jun 7 '12 at 5:18

If you are making it optional for the applicant to enter a name and address, you can use:

You may enter a name or an address

But if it is mandatory to enter a name and address, use:

Enter a name and address

The meaning of "a name" would be more clear if you could elaborate what you want the applicant to enter.

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Difficult to say without seeing the whole form, but I'd be inclined to avoid both can and may. 'Name or address' on its own might be enough, with an indication of whether provision of the information is optional.

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May and can suggest different ideas when used in a standard English phrase, but, on an online form they are pretty much the same (though, can sounds better in such case).

On an online form, I would usually avoid giving long (full sentences) 'tool-tips' or so. If you choose to mark a field mandatory, you may consider using "Enter your name/address; Required" and "Enter your name/address; Optional" otherwise.

However, if your field (on the form) gives the user a choice to enter either a name or an address, can is suitable: "You can enter either a name or an address" (Notice 'either' which makes it easier to understand).

Consider adding some more information in your question to help us understand better. Cheers!!

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Which is preferred?

//warning: not a native speaker

As far as I know, "You can" means "you have ability to do it". "You may" means something like "you have my permission to do it if you want" or "you're allowed to do that if you want". This isn't exact meaning, but "may" is definitely frequently used in "ask for permission" situations ("may I come in?").

Regarding the choice of better sentence:

In my opinion, "you can enter ***" is better choice ("you may enter" sounds somewhat "uppity" to me), but if I were you I'd avoid that phrase completely.

Instead, I'd created separate text edit control for address entry, and added "Address:" label nearby. Or you can always use "Enter address here:" or something like that.

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