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Possible Duplicate:
Can/May/Will you help me with this?

Which is correct if I want to request for a pen?

  • Can I have your pen please?
  • May I have your pen please?
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    For one, can is more informal; may is formal. The school marm can't let you say Can I, and your friends may not like it if you say May I. – Kris Jan 11 '12 at 7:32
  • "May I" is correct, but most native speakers say "can I" when asking for permission. It may be true that "two wrongs don't make a right", but one billion wrongs do. It's similar to theft: steal US$1000 & you'll go to jail for at least a year because it's a felony; steal US$100,000,000 & you become a celebrity. When one person dies, it's a tragedy; when thousands die, it's a statistic. Kill one man & you're a murderer; kill 1000 & you're a war hero. Might makes right. There's no getting around it unless you close your eyes & ears, which is what most people do all the time: cognitive dissonance. – user21497 Jan 4 '13 at 8:38
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    I have voted to reopen because the supposed "duplicate" deals with a very odd example ("May you help me", as waiwai's answer points out, doesn't make much sense in most contexts). – sumelic Jul 7 '18 at 20:42
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Can primarily expresses possibility and ability and, secondarily, permission. May expresses primarily possibility and, secondarily, permision and volition. In seeking permission, as in your examples, the use of may is much more formal and polite than can and is used rather less.

However, both 'Can I have your pen please?' and 'May I have your pen please?' are blunt ways of making a request. In practice, a native speaker, at least of British English, is much more likely to say something like 'You don't happen to have a pen I could borrow, do you?'

  • 'You don't happen to have a pen I could borrow, do you?' would give the person enough time to think, rethink and decide otherwise than to risk it, perhaps? – Kris Jan 12 '12 at 5:08
  • @Kris: Perhaps. – Barrie England Jan 12 '12 at 7:45
  • @BarrieEngland: I have just transferred an answer I gave long ago to the question which is suspected of being a duplicate of this one (Can/May/Will you help me with this?) here. Does it deserve the score of –2 and the accusation of etymological fallacy it go there? What do you think? – user58319 Sep 22 '18 at 18:52
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NOAD has a usage note that reads:

Is there any difference between can and may when used to request or express permission, as in : may I ask you a few questions? or : can I ask you a few questions? It is still widely held that using can for permission is somehow incorrect and that it should be reserved for expressions denoting capability, as in : can you swim? Although the use of the 'permission' sense of can is not regarded as incorrect in standard English, there is a clear difference in formality between the two verbs: may is, generally speaking, a more polite way of asking for something and is the better choice in more formal contexts.

I suspect many other English dictionaries have similar notes under their entries for may or can.

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It's "May I have your pen please". When you use can, you are asking if you have the ability to have the pen. But when you use may, you are asking for permission to have the pen.

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    This is misleading. Both are used to seek permission, but may is much more formal than can. – Barrie England Jan 4 '13 at 8:13
  • The English is also misleading. Does anyone really mean what they say or say what they mean? Don't answer that. It's not only a rhetorical question, but it assumes that the answer doesn't really matter. – user21497 Jan 4 '13 at 8:41
  • I agree with @Barrie. Say may instead of can, and you risk sounding pompous. Say can instead of may, and you risk sounding uneducated. Both are used; one may be more "correct," but the other is more common – make your choice accordingly. As a side note, if Kari's answer is the correct one, then this is a general reference question. However, our ensuing discussion takes this away from the realm of general reference, and into the realm of usage. – J.R. Jan 4 '13 at 10:05
  • This answer does not agree with widespread practice in American English. The two expressions are for all practical purposes interchangeable in my experience. The desire to borrow a pen will be understood either way. Only someone recognizing this desire could argue some distinction between the received meaning and the way they would have preferred you to have expressed it. Except between a parent and child, a teacher and a very young student or similar relationship drawing such a distinction is impertinent at best. – Trevor Reid Aug 11 '18 at 13:37
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Why not ask etymology for some help here?

The word can comes from Proto-Germanic kunnan

to be mentally able, to have learnt

Can is about ability, skills, knowing how to do things, whereas the word may comes from Proto-Germanic root mag-, infinitive maganan, from Proto-Indo-European magh-

to be able, have power

May is about power, the position a person is in to grant or refuse another person permission to do something, says the Online Etymology dictionary.

Can I go to the bathroom?

– etymologically – is not really appropriate for asking permission as it means something like Do you think I know how to go to the bathroom?, which might sound rude, even! On the other hand,

May I go to the bathroom?

– etymologically again – means something like Would your highness allow me to go to the bathroom? and, in the classless world we live in (?) we are not really ready to your-highness anyone if we can avoid it! Well, little children cannot really avoid it for a question of stature and status, but, when you have grown up, using may is felt as humiliating, as if you were kneeling in front of someone.

Could I go to the bathroom?

represents a middle ground between rudeness and self-humiliation, which can satisfy both the speaker and the listener!

Using the modal auxiliary can in the conditional, 'unrealising' the present, making it hypothetical, dampens the shock. I am asking about objective conditions (do you think I know how to) but using the conditional instead of the present puts more emphasis on the listener, on their ability to assess the situation, which is a tacit acknowledgement of their authority.

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"Can I" refers more to the ability or inability to accomplish a task: "Would it be possible for me to actually have your pen in my possession" whereas "May I" would lean towards permission for the task: "Will you grant me the permission of taking your pen".

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    -1 In OP's examples, can and may mean exactly the same thing -- related to permission; ability is not a factor. In fact, in the sense of being able to, the question Can I would be entirely different from what is implied here. – Kris Jan 11 '12 at 9:08
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    Actually, even "Is it possible for me to have your pen?" (the literal meaning of 'can') would be interpreted as a request for the pen by native English speakers. – Peter Shor Jan 11 '12 at 12:26
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    My high school headmaster who also was the senior English teacher illustrated the difference when someone asked "Can I do X?" where X was something that was not ordinarily permitted under school rules. The response was "You can but you may not." So, "May I use your pen, please?" (note: not "have" which could be taken to mean that you intend to keep the pen forever; indeed, "borrow" would be even better than "use") is how I would phrase it. "Can I have your pen, please?" is not only blunt as Barrie England points out, but could be used by a polite robber or strong-arm person. – Dilip Sarwate Jan 11 '12 at 13:37
  • @DilipSarwate +1 for 'a polite robber', true. – Kris Jan 12 '12 at 5:05

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