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One definition of can in Merriam-Webster Online is:

c —used to indicate possibility < do you think he can still be alive> < those things can happen> ; sometimes used interchangeably with may

But in The Elements of Style written by William Strunk, Jr., it says:

Can. Means am (is, are) able. Not to be used as a substitute for may.

This contradiction makes me confused. So in what situation can can be used "interchangeably" with may, and in what situation it cannot?

EDIT: The two sentences in The Elements of Style make me feel that the author permits only one use of can (be able) in the first sentence and proscribes the other use (may; to indicate possibility) in the second sentence. Did I misinterpret the author's meaning? Or the text is ambiguous?

marked as duplicate by phenry, Andrew Leach, oerkelens, anongoodnurse, Matt E. Эллен Jun 17 '14 at 9:53

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  • There's a difference, maybe subtle, between can & may in the example sentences. With can you indicate a higher possibility while with may it's more like fifty-fifty. – Kris Jun 5 '14 at 6:02
  • The use of can in the example sentences does suggest a capability/ proclivity for the outcome unlike may, therefore it's not a substitute. As such, Strunk, Jr. is right. – Kris Jun 5 '14 at 6:04
  • @Kris But I think what Strunk Jr. means is that can can only be used in one meaning, that is "be able", and may is mentioned here to indicate its "possibility" meaning. My personal opinion. – Junnan Jun 5 '14 at 6:39
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They are not exactly the same. The wording in the dictionary entries are also somewhat different so they point to different aspects of the similarity and differences.

sometimes used interchangeably with may

Means that in some cases they can be used for describing the same thing, but this depends on context, and possibly some re-phrasing needed to keep same meaning.

Not to be used as a substitute for may.

Means that is not exactly the same, so you can not just switch the words in any context.

  • So do you mean that they are not contradictory? But the two sentences in The Elements of Style make me feel that the author permits only one use of can (be able) in the first sentence and proscribes the other use (may; to indicate possibility) in the second sentence. Did I misinterpret the author's meaning? Or the text is ambiguous? – Junnan Jun 5 '14 at 7:37
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If you use can to ask for permission then can and may are the same thing.

If you use can to mean be able then they are not the same thing.

If you use can to mean possibility then can and may are the same thing.

Permission to fix something Can I fix this can be replaced with May I fix this

Ability to fix something Can I fix this cannot be replaced with May I fix this

Possibility to fix something Can I fix this can be replaced with May I fix this

Whether you may use can to ask for permission can be argued about but I think may has been ousted as the main 'permission seeking' word by can.

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