Word Confusion: Can versus May

Posted November 17, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 19 August 2017

Once I grasped the difference in this word confusion, can versus may, it’s cracked me up ever since. Yep, every time I hear someone say can or may, I’m analyzing it for how well it fits. What can I say…I’m a word nerd.

That said, this word confusion is confined to the modal verb side of can and may. I didn’t want to clutter things up with all the rest.

Consider the following:
Can I go to Mary’s house to play?

Physically, she’s perfectly capable of going over to Mary’s. Whether mom will let her go, that’s another story.

May I go to Mary’s house to play?

She’s asking permission.

Can I go to Harvard University?

Well, it depends upon your grades and a few other details.

May I go to Harvard University?

Sure, you may go. Are you planning on being a tourist? Going to school? Shopping at the bookstore?

He can hold his breath underwater for three minutes.

He is capable of holding his breath for that long.

He may hold his breath underwater for three minutes.

We haven’t tested it, but it’s possible that he can do it.

Another possibility is that he can hold his breath longer, but he’s only being given permission to hold it for three minutes.

Then again, perhaps it means that he will if he wants to.

Can I climb up to the treehouse?

I don’t know. Maybe his legs are too short to climb the boards nailed into the tree’s trunk. Or maybe his arms aren’t strong enough.

May I climb up to the treehouse?

Yeah, go ahead. If you’ve done your chores.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Can May
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

“Mardi Gras Marathon Starting Line for the All-Guard Marathon Team” by The National Guard (Flickr: All-Guard Marathon Team) under the CC-BY-2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

They may not be running yet, but they can once the starting horn blows.


A colorful 1880 cartoon of children playing outside the village

Afternoon Tea: Rhymes for Children” by J. G. Sowerby and H. H. Emmerson. London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1880, is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I knew this children’s game as “Mother May I” while others may know it as “Captain May I”.

Part of Grammar:
Verb, modal

Past tense: could

(Have a peek at the Might’a not be a Could’a, Would’a, Should’a issues.)

Verb, modal

1st, 2nd, and third person singular and the present plural: may
[Archaic] 2nd person singular: mayest, mayst
Past tense: might

(Have a peek at the Might’a not be a Could’a, Would’a, Should’a issues and you may want to explore the “May Be versus Maybe confusion.)

Are you capable of doing it?


Am able to, be able to, is able to, are able to

Be able to through acquired knowledge of skill

Have the opportunity or possibility to

Be permitted to

Indicates that something is typically the case

Do you have permission?


Has/have permission to

Expressing possibility

Expressing permission

Expressing a wish or hope

Examples:
I can hear footsteps.

I can speak French.

He can’t have finished.

You can use the phone if you want.

Can’t you leave me alone?

He can be very moody.

They may have been old-fashioned.

You may use a sling if you wish.

May she rest in peace.

And then there’s the confusion over the difference in using can or may to suggest that something is possible or ask permission.
Can I go to the store?


This is where I enjoy the minute shading of meaning, in which a mom could tell her child that “yes, they can go the store. Their legs work. Their bike is in working order. But, they mayn’t go today.

May I leave now?

May I borrow your dictionary?

May we think about it until tomorrow?

Philip may come to stay with us.

I may not have time to do it straightaway.

It may snow later today.


These days, might is more frequently used in place of may whether it’s under the assumption that might suggests a smaller possibility or it sounds less formal.
History of the Word:
Old English cunnan meaning know (in Middle English, know how to) is related to the Dutch kunnen and German können, from an Indo-European root shared by the Latin gnoscere meaning know and the Greek gignōskein, also meaning know. Old English mæg is of Germanic origin from a base meaning have power. It is related to the Dutch mogen and German mögen.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits

This frontispiece from a first edition of Oliver Twist published by Richard Bentley is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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