Confusing Words

Can Vs May

If you are a student, you must have definitely experienced or seen your classmates getting checked for the use of Can I to May I? Teachers often correct this mistake. Thus, it makes it important to learn the difference correctly to avoid any confusion. Thus, we will go through the differences between can vs may in this article to ensure there are no confusions regarding their usage. First of all, can and may are both modal verbs which express mood when we use them with main verbs. Moreover, whether you can use them interchangeably or not will depend on the context.

When we talk about the meaning of these words, we will understand them better. Can denote that someone has the ability to do something. On the other hand, may refers to the possibility of something occurring or happening. It is easy to use can and may in a traditional context as they do not have separate meanings. The tricky part arises when we ask for permission like Can I or May I? The traditional choice is may but can is also becoming a modern option. Let us learn more about it.

can vs may

Difference Between Can Vs May

The difference between using can or may depends on the situation, especially when you want to ask something. If you were to write a highly formal letter where politeness and cordiality is your primary concern, you must use may for asking permission.

Similarly, if you are eating at a fancy restaurant, it is more appropriate to use may when asking for anything instead of using can. In other words, may is considered to be the more polite option of the two.

However, if you are hanging out with your friends in an informal setting, you can make use of the word can when asking for something, such as a cold drink or more. Thus, you see that it is your audience which must be considered when using these terms.

All in all, use may when you want to show respect, politeness and courtesy. Alternatively, use can when these things are not that important in the situation. Most importantly, please remember that you cannot use may in place of a can to express ability.

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When/How to Use Can

Can is an auxiliary verb. This means it is a helping or modal verb. We use it for indicating physical or mental ability. It is derived from the Old English cunnan which means to be able.

For instance, when you ask ‘can you dance?’ or ‘I can dance.’ Thus, you see that can concern physical ability or the capacity to do something and not permission. Hence, one can substitute can with able or capable.

Let us take a look at the use at the incorrect and correct use of can vs may:

Incorrect: I may play baseball.

Correct: I can play baseball.

When/How to Use May

May is an auxiliary verb which we use to indicate possibility or permission. For instance, when you say it may rain tonight, which denotes the possibility of raining. Further, we also use it when we ask for permission.

For instance, when you say you may borrow my pen or may I go to the washroom? Thus, it is important to use may when you ask for something especially in a formal setting. Let us take a look at the use of the incorrect and correct use of can vs may:

Incorrect: That can be the best TV show I’ve seen all year.

Correct: That may be the best TV show I’ve seen all year

Examples of Can – Using Can in a Sentence

As we have discussed above, we use the word can in a lot of different ways and purposes. Thus, we will take you through some examples to clear up its use through a few sentences. This will help you learn about the word in a more practical manner.

  • Can you watch my laptop for me while I’m gone?
  • She assured me that she can take care of herself.
  • This device can track your location at all times.
  • She is the only one who can calm him down in this situation.
  • If you can find a way to fix my phone, I will be highly obliged.

Examples of May – Using May in a Sentence

Now that we have discussed the differences and uses of the word may. It is time to go through some examples to see how they are used in sentences. After that, you can try making your own sentences to practice the use of this word correctly:

  • It may rain during the cricket match.
  • If you finish your homework, you may play video games.
  • May I get back to you within an hour to resolve your issue?
  • I may be late to this afternoon’s meeting.
  • Debra may be too busy to pick Sandy up from school.
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