“Can” vs. “May”: Are You Able To Tell The Difference?

The words can and may are often discussed together because of how similarly they are used. Although some of their uses are distinct, they often overlap, especially in the context of asking permission.

In this article, we’ll cover the different meanings of can and may, explain how they differ and how they overlap, and provide example sentences to show how they’re used.

Quick summary

Can and may are auxiliary (helping) verbs that are both commonly used to express possibility or ask for or give permission. When asking permission, the word may is often considered more formal or polite than the word can. However, both are grammatically correct in the context of permission and are now often used interchangeably.

can vs. may

Can and may are both auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs. They are commonly used in verb phrases to express specific things.

The word can is used together with other verbs to express ability, possibility, or permission (asking and giving).

  • Birds can fly. (ability)
  • When rolling two dice, the resulting amount can be 2 through 12. (possibility)
  • Can I use your bathroom? (permission)
  • Yes, you can use the bathroom. (permission)

The word may is used together with other verbs to express wishes, possibility, or permission.

  • May you find peace. (a wish)
  • It may rain tomorrow. (possibility)
  • May I use your bathroom? (permission)
  • Yes, you may use the bathroom. (permission)

As you can see, can and may overlap in contexts of possibility and permission. They are typically considered interchangeable when referring to possibility, but some people make a distinction when it comes to permission.

Grammatically, it is considered completely acceptable to use can and may interchangeably in the context of permission. However, the word can is often seen as being less formal or polite than using the word may in this context. This distinction is most commonly applied to spoken English.

Historically, the differences between may and can were more distinct until relatively recently. In earlier times, can was specifically used to indicate ability and may was specifically reserved for permission. However, their meanings have overlapped since at least the 1800s, and the use of can in the context of permission has significantly increased in modern times.

For a related comparison, check out our guide to may vs. might.

Examples of can and may used in a sentence

We can review by looking at examples of how can and may are typically used in sentences.

  • I need to find someone who can play drums for my band.
  • You may win the lottery, but it is very unlikely.
  • I can tell you that the dragon may attack us at any time.
  • May I borrow a tool that can cut this wire?
  • Can you let me know when I may be able to access my account again?

Take the initiative and review this guide on "led" vs. "lead."

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