Difference Between Can and May

Main Difference – Can vs. May

Both can and may are modal verbs that are used with other verbs to talk about possibility, permission, suggestions etc. Many people often get confused about whether there is any difference between can and may when these verbs are used to ask for or grant permission. In traditional English may is the modal verb that was associated with granting and asking for permission. But in modern usage, can is increasingly being used instead of may and this has lead to many confusions. The main difference between can and may is that may is more polite and formal than can.

Can –Meaning and Usage

Can is a modal verb that mainly denotes capability and ability. The past form of can is could.

He can count to 100.

She can speak four languages.

Can you see that house there?

Can can be used to ask for and grant permission as well. However, in this case, can should be only used in an informal context.

Can I ask you some questions?

You can go out, but you must return within 30 minutes.

Can I help you with something?

Can I have a glass of water?

Can we use your car for few hours?

You can borrow my pen.

Main Difference -Can vs May

How can I help you?

May –Meaning and Usage

May is a modal verb that denotes permission. May is traditionally used to ask for and grant permission. Using may in a request for permission is considered to be more polite and formal. So this usage is mostly seen in a very formal setting among polite company.

May I ask you a question?

May I introduce to you our chairman, Mr. Anderson?

You may go to your room.

You may use my car, but you have to return it today itself.

May I leave the table?

You may go out, but you have to return within 10 minutes.

In addition, may can be used for several purposes. May can be used to talk about a possible situation or to express a wish or hope as well.

May you have a long and healthy life. – wish

Her controversial speech may result in an uprising. – Possible situation

Difference Between Can and May

May I have the honour of this dance?

Difference Between Can and May


Can is used to

Denote capability, ability

Give permission

Request someone to do something

May can be used to

Express possibility

Ask for or give permission

Express a wish or hope

Request or Grant Permission

Can is used in informal contexts.

May is used in formal contexts.


It is not polite to use can to request or grant permission.

It is more polite to use may to request or grant permission.Difference Between Can and May - infograpgic

Image Courtesy

“Gerard Terborch – The Dancing Couple” by Irina (Public Domain) via Flickr

“Receptionist at Counter” by Sarah Ashely (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flickr

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