When asking a question like "May you print a copy of that for me?", when should you use "may" or "could"?

  • 1
    First, notice, you're not asking a question -- you don't want somebody to tell you how probable their copying is, you want somebody to do the copying. In other words, you're making a request, disguised as a question. Second, in cases of such indirect requests, may is not used. Would or will or could or can are frequently used, but not may. May has many uses, but this is not one. Mar 1, 2014 at 20:53

2 Answers 2


I think you could have easily found the answer to this on Google, but the recap is that may is used primarily (though with diminishing frequency, at least in the US) for permission and can (and its past tense could) are used for mere ability.

In this case, you would use may if you were asking if they had permission to print you a copy. This seems unlikely, unless there is an arbiter of printing that must be consulted.

I think you're looking for could here. You want to know if they have the physical, mental, spatial, temporal, etc., ability to print you a copy.

Adding some detail to your question will make an answer more clear, but I hope this points you in the right direction. You're almost certainly looking for could/can in this case.

  • Wouldn't it be "can" since it matches "print"? "Can you print me...?" versus "Could you have printed me...?"
    – MrHen
    Mar 4, 2014 at 20:32
  • @MrHen I think both would be acceptable. Most definitions I've seen of "could" include at least one entry pertaining to its use as a word of possibility or cordiality. As long as conditional and perfect tenses aren't confused, I think using "could" is acceptable in this case.
    – emsoff
    Mar 4, 2014 at 21:59
  • Any examples? This is new information to me. I couldn't find this use in ESL books. I could think of possible scenarios but I don't want speculations when I want to learn. So any examples please? ------ "Could you have printed me...?" =?= "As long as conditional and perfect tenses aren't confused, I think using "could" is acceptable in this case."
    – learner
    Mar 8, 2015 at 0:49

In this type of construction, may means is it permissible. Unless you are asking whether the rules allow the copying, can or could should be used. Both of those terms mean is it possible.

The purists would make the following distinctions:

May I go home now? [Have the charges been dropped allowing me to leave the police station?]

Can I go home now? [Has the bridge been repaired and is the road open?]

In the first instance, colloquial speech often allows the substitution of can for may when permission is the criterion. In the latter case, you would not use may when actual ability is at issue.

  • why the downvotes?
    – user428517
    Aug 12, 2014 at 17:44
  • @sgroves Beats me.
    – bib
    Aug 12, 2014 at 17:54

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