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.
…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.
|Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com|
|Part of Grammar:|
Past tense: could
(Have a peek at the Might’a not be a Could’a, Would’a, Should’a issues.)
1st, 2nd, and third person singular and the present plural: may
|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 a wish or hope
|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?
Pinterest Photo Credits
This frontispiece from a first edition of Oliver Twist published by Richard Bentley is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.