Just now, I wanted to ask a question that was something like, "Can I get a thorough list of all the parts of speech that a sentence can be broken down into?" But then a nagging voice appeared in my head and said, "Of course you can! You certainly have the capability -- but that's not what you want, is it." "You're asking for help, so use may."

My question is: Should I invariably trust that voice, instilled in students by grammar school teachers everywhere? What do serious linguists and language enthusiasts think about the "Can I"/"May I" distinction? Would they agree, or is it fair to say that using "can" there has become proper idiomatic English? I ask because I couldn't really think of a quick way to rephrase that sentence using "may", and began to wonder whether it was just another one of those kludgy myths megalomaniac teachers enforce on their students...

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    This seems a bit inflammatory with the choice of "serious" in the title. How are you defining a "serious grammarian"? I suspect those grammar school teachers consider themselves serious. Surprisingly, I was unable to find evidence this was a duplicate; I expected someone to have asked this already.
    – MrHen
    Mar 28, 2011 at 18:20
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    @Billare: Your clarification is more inflammatory. Do you mean "Do non-prescriptivists endorse ..." I can think of a handful of less aggressive ways to word this question. Why did you choose this one?
    – MrHen
    Mar 28, 2011 at 18:33
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    Now now. Serious linguists pretty much consigned prescriptive grammarians to the dustbin of history decades ago, and Jason's answer accurately sums up the descriptive position as of now. Mind you, I too am surprised no-one seems to have raised the may/can distinction here before - it was always a great favourite amongst pedants everywhere, as I recall. Mar 28, 2011 at 18:48
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    I have never met a serious grammarian. Come to think of it, I've never even met a grammarian. We don't allow them in our country.
    – Robusto
    Mar 28, 2011 at 19:08
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    @Billare: Am I right in reading your question as something like, “In actual usage (as recorded/analysed by academic linguists), does the use of can vs. may follow any specific pattern? If so, is this pattern anything like the traditional prescription of the distinction between them?” Just trying to go for clarification, since though some of the answers so far are interesting, none of them seem to actually address it directly yet…
    – PLL
    Apr 27, 2011 at 3:25

6 Answers 6


Repeating my answer to this related question, I searched Shakespeare's plays, and found these two examples where it appears that can and may are used in ways opposite the commonly prescribed can we/may we distinction. I don't know when or how this distinction developed or was prescribed, but my conclusion is that it is not a historical feature of English grammar.

From Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act I, Scene 4:

Can we, with manners, ask what was the difference?

From Shakespeare, All's Well that Ends Well, Act I, Scene 1:

Ay. You have some stain of soldier in you: let me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?

I think the problem may be that unlike, say, German (which has dürfen) English doesn't have a modal verb which always means "to be allowed to". For example, if I say "It may be rainy tomorrow," I do not mean that I am permitting the clouds to rain. The modal verbs can and may have both been appropriated for this meaning in English, but I don't see any clear semantic reason for using one rather than the other. Without either a semantic reason for or a historical tradition of making this distinction, prescriptive grammarians are fighting an uphill battle.

  • I think it's less commonly used but: Es dürfte Regen geben. = It may rain.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Apr 27, 2011 at 21:11
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    @z7sg: I didn't know that. Clearly, I should have said usually rather than always when talking about the meaning of dürfen. But my point still holds; for instance, if I said "I may go to the store," it would probably not mean "I am allowed to go to the store." Apr 28, 2011 at 12:58
  • I should add, in the interest of honesty, that most of the quotes from Shakespeare with questions involving can I or may I use them the way that the grammarians prescribe. So there may be some justification for this grammatical distinction, although it appears not to have been a hard and fast rule. May 4, 2011 at 0:49

This is a matter of context and style, not some sort of esoteric detail that "serious grammarians" (which I won't dwell on) might idly debate.

In a casual context, use the words "can" and "may" interchangeably with an emphasis on "can" for everyday purposes.

Keep this in mind though: Each of the two words has a distinct meaning. For contracts or the law, this difference is observed. Personal experience for justification: I was with a friend in traffic court in Arizona. Presiding judge had approx 100 cases to rule on, none involving injuries or damage. When he got to my friend's case, he sent the plea agreement back to the Assistant District Attorney, because there was ambiguity due to the use of "may" instead of "shall". "May pay a fine" is an option, a choice, whereas "shall pay a fine" is mandatory.

The judge was presiding over misdemeanor and minor criminal traffic citations in a small town in Arizona, and court was in session for three hours with no break. Yet he noticed an inconsistency in wording with a very quick scan of the paper work, and deemed it important enough to involve the DA's office for five minutes to resolve. So don't dismiss the importance of such distinctions. However, context should be your first criteria, then grammatical "correctness".

  • Can you clarify why a difference between the meaning of "may" and "shall" is relevant to a discussion on the difference in meaning between "may" and "can"? Apr 27, 2011 at 12:35
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    @Peter Taylor I was using an example to emphasize why a minor distinction is relevant, due to the situation. Similarity to the question here? "May" versus "can" and "Shall" versus "may": In both cases, there is a difference between free-will versus something exogenous as the determinant of whether the action is completed. For shall/may, "shall" is an injunction, there is no choice, but "may" is optional. For may/can, "may" is contingent upon receiving permission, while "can" is within your control, the scope of your ability. May 5, 2011 at 18:14
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    Your pedantic judge was apparently kicking up over a feasible distinction between may and shall, not may and can, so it's not directly relevant. But he was just flexing his puny legal/pseudolinguistic muscles because he could get away with it. The legal meaning of such wording is (within reason) whatever the writer obviously meant, and this principle would be upheld in an appeal to a higher court if necessary. Words are not so important as to create the law, they're just what we use to write it down. Aug 10, 2011 at 3:14
  • @FumbleFingers Well in this case, I was happy about it. It made the difference between my friend going to the payment window in the courthouse and paying $250.00 in cash versus immediately departing the courthouse and going home. That is probably irrelevant. I no longer am sure what is or isn't relevant on this question! Aug 11, 2011 at 3:02
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    To be honest, I think nothing is really relevant to this wretched can/may distinction from a language point of view. All it's ever been is pedantry that allows us to swap tales of how certain people have misguidedly attempted to force their own prejudices on others. I just meant that whereas in your friend's case it was easier to cave in than to argue the toss, the judge was backed up by ephemeral might, not by objective and enduring right. Aug 11, 2011 at 15:54

I think a serious descriptive grammarian would tell you what you already know: can I is more common and may I indicates more formal style, but in this kind of context they mean exactly the same thing.

However that does not tell you which one you should use. For that, ask a writer whose style you’d like to emulate; consult a usage guide; or stop worrying about it. :)

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    For what it’s worth, other possibilities include Could I have... or directly asking What are all the parts of speech that...? I think I would go with the latter. Mar 28, 2011 at 18:28

I'm not a grammarian, let alone a serious one, but I'd like to make a case for both words being synonymous in that context.

Let's look at the following phrase in which a student asks a teacher for permission to go to the bathroom:

[1] May I go to the bathroom?
[2] Can I go to the bathroom?

Sentence [1] is pretty self-explanatory.

Sentence [2], though, could be interpreted as follows:

[2-alt] If I have your permission to go to the bathroom, then I am able to go. If I do not have your permission, then I'm not able to go. Therefore, I could ask: am I able to go to the bathroom? Or, rather: can I go the bathroom?

Sentence [2-alt] uses the definition of "can" that means to "be able to." The student is asking if he or she is able to go to the bathroom. (if he or she does not have permission, then he or she is not able to go.) The "with your permission" part was understood, if you will.

edit: Changed [2-alt] to be slightly more logical and slightly less redundant. The explanation following it no longer makes as much sense, but I think it still serves its purpose.

  • "Can I, with your permission, go to the bathroom" simply and redundantly says,
    – Dan
    Apr 23, 2011 at 18:50
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    [gol dern 5 minute limit!]"Can I, with your permission, go to the bathroom" simply and redundantly says, "Do I have your permission to, with your permission, go to the bathroom". What person, save for those suffering from constipation, does not have the ability to go to the bathroom. "go to the bathroom" can also be interpreted as just visiting the bathroom. Is there also a prescription, given prescriptivists' penchant for clear and unambiguous language, against not honestly describing the real reason for one's visit to the john.
    – Dan
    Apr 23, 2011 at 18:57
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    I wasn't suggesting that anyone ever say "Can I, with your permission, go to the bathroom." That would definitely be redundant. I only included that parenthetical element to show that one's inability to "use" the bathroom is not the only reason one would not be able to go. A teacher preventing a student from going to the bathroom would be a reason why someone cannot go to the bathroom, thereby validating the question. I edited my answer anyways, though, because I agree that it is rather redundant in that form.
    – Adam
    Apr 24, 2011 at 2:39
  • Though the student may face disciplinary action, they are still able to go without permission.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Apr 24, 2011 at 10:43
  • Not if not facing disciplinary action was a requirement of the student. The student was not able to go to the bathroom without facing disciplinary action. Look at definition four: "legally empowered, qualified, or authorized." The student was unauthorized to go to the bathroom and thus unable to go.
    – Adam
    Apr 24, 2011 at 17:47

It matters who your audience is. What your words mean to the members of your audience and how they sound to them is more important than what a grammarian says (unless he/she is part of your audience ;). If "may" would sound unnecessarily snobbish, use "can". If "can" would get you the response "Of course you can; do you mean 'may I'?", use "may".


Seeing the reference to Shakespeare, I can add that in German the situation with can/may is exactly the same. But seeing that: If you ask a question like: Can I go to the toilette? Then well who will ask himself in front of others if he/she has the ability to go to the toilette, so there is really no ambiguity here

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