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.
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
Can is used to
Denote capability, ability
Request someone to do something
May can be used to
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.
“Gerard Terborch – The Dancing Couple” by Irina (Public Domain) via Flickr