Not a duplicate! Here are the differences:

  • I already read the other question while researching prior to asking this, and it didn't answer my question. Come on, you gotta believe me!

  • The other question asks about what the most appropriate word to use in a restaurant setting is. This question asks about what the logically correct word to use in a particular sentence (Stack Exchange error message) is when the meaning is a mix of both.

  • The other question asks about ASKING FOR permission or ASKING IF something is possible. This question specifically mentions the use of "can" and "may" for GIVING PERMISSION or TELLING that something is possible. Questions and statements are not the same kind of sentence.

  • I always have to fight to stop my questions from getting closed as duplicates. It's so irritating! Give me a break!

Stack Exchange has a network-wide restriction that limits low-rep users to only ask 1 question per 40 minutes (90 minutes on Stack Overflow).

The error message that you get when you try to ask too many questions:

You can only post once every 40 minutes.

"Can" is supposed to be used to denote the possibility of doing something, i.e being able to post once every 40 minutes.

On the other hand, "may" us supposed to be used to ask for and give permission, i.e having permission to post once every 40 minutes.

The error message in question seems like a hybrid of the 2 "can" and "may" contexts. The system gives users permission to post once every 40 minutes, but it's also impossible to post before the 40 minutes is up.

Which is the correct word to use here? "Can" or "may"?

  • 1
    Possible duplicate of "Can I" vs "May I" in restaurant setting when ordering
    – Bread
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 21:42
  • 1
    If it's important to you, the right thing to do is to reword the statement to be less ambiguous.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 22:00
  • 2
    I don't believe this question is a duplicate of that question either—but not because of semantics. Only because the other question seems to be about politeness and the "correct" social expression. This question has nothing to do with that. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 22:04

2 Answers 2


This question seems to be based on a false premise: that the word "can" is inappropriate whenever permission is involved. Despite what peevers would have you believe, the meaning of "can" is broad enough to cover various situations: see the answers to What is the difference between 'can', 'could', 'may' and 'might'? and Difference between "can" and "may". There is no need for a separate "hybrid" of can and may in contexts like the sentence that you have quoted. Can is perfectly all right here.

  • 1
    When I was a kid in a municipal school in London for ages 5 to 7, (1957-1959) the teachers tried to make us speak 'proper', and if you asked the teacher 'Can I go to the toilet?' he or she would say 'You can but you may not'. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 20:50
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    One distinction often lacking in these analyses is that modals used in questions under inversion are more often in the deontic mode, while those used in simple declarative sentences can go either way but may be more likely to be in the epistemic mode. “I may dine out tonight” is merely epistemic, whereas “May I dine out tonight?” can only be deontic.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 15:19

Can is the correct word. (And it doesn't seem like a hybrid to me.)

Nobody on Stack Exchange is granting or withholding you permission to vote more often. Whether you can or cannot is a simple fact that's built into the code on which the site runs.

If permission is granted or denied that means that it's capable of being granted or denied. Permission implies a decision resulting from a choice.

Here, the system has no choice. To infer permission would be a semantic mistake.

  • 2
    Isn't that a little Jesuitical? Whoever designed the system to do that impicitly intended to regulate how frequently people are allowed (i.e. as a matter of policy) to post questions, surely. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 20:52
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    @MichaelHarvey No, but it's certainly philosophical. Once unsuspended in midair, you either fall or you don't. Permission requires that there be some kind of agency involved. Sure, you can work backwards to first causes in some cases, but I'm not doing that. In terms of policy, nothing is preventing you from parking in a spot reserved for somebody else. It's not that you can't, but that you shouldn't (and mayn't). Which is humorous, only because I now see a comment you made to the other answer—which is the point I'm making here. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 21:58
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    My comment, to which you allude, was intended to convey my opinion that that the may/can distinction is, to some degree, related to register. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 22:58
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    "Permission requires that there be some kind of agency involved" - if I program a computer linked to, say, a television set so that it may only be used at certain times (e.g. to encourage my children to do their homework) they will say "We may not use the television yet; Papa has arranged it so.". My agency is embodied in the program. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 23:04
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    I think, on reflection, that a percipient child might say "Papa has said that we may not use the television yet, and he has arranged it so that we cannot". Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 11:10

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