Can vs. May

What's the Difference?

Can and may are both modal verbs that express permission or ability. However, there is a subtle difference between the two. "Can" is used to indicate someone's ability or capability to do something, while "may" is used to ask for or grant permission. For example, if someone asks "Can I go to the party?", they are inquiring about their ability to attend. On the other hand, if they ask "May I go to the party?", they are seeking permission to attend. Therefore, "can" focuses on ability, while "may" focuses on permission.


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AbilityExpresses capability or possibilityExpresses permission or possibility
UsageUsed to talk about general abilities or skillsUsed to talk about permission or likelihood
Formal EquivalentBe able toBe allowed to
Positive StatementI can swimI may go to the party
Negative StatementI cannot swimI may not go to the party
QuestionCan you swim?May I go to the party?
Informal EquivalentCanCan
Usage in RequestsUsed to make requestsUsed to ask for permission
Usage in OffersUsed to make offersUsed to express possibility
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Further Detail


When it comes to expressing permission or possibility, two commonly used modal verbs in the English language are "can" and "may." While they may seem similar at first glance, there are distinct differences in their usage and meaning. In this article, we will explore the attributes of "can" and "may" and shed light on when and how to use them correctly.

Usage of Can

The modal verb "can" is primarily used to express ability, capability, or permission. It indicates that someone has the skill, power, or authority to do something. For example, "I can swim" implies that the person has the ability to swim. Similarly, "You can borrow my book" suggests that the person has permission to borrow the book.

Furthermore, "can" is often used to talk about general abilities or skills that someone possesses. It is not specific to a particular situation or moment. For instance, "She can speak multiple languages" indicates that the person has the ability to speak multiple languages in general, not just at a specific time.

Additionally, "can" is commonly used to make requests or ask for permission in a more informal context. For example, "Can I use your phone?" or "Can you help me with this?" In these cases, "can" is used to seek permission or assistance.

It is important to note that "can" is not appropriate for formal situations or when seeking formal permission. In such cases, "may" is the more suitable choice.

Usage of May

The modal verb "may" is primarily used to express permission, possibility, or uncertainty. Unlike "can," which focuses on ability, "may" emphasizes the granting or seeking of permission. For instance, "You may leave the room" indicates that the person has permission to leave.

Moreover, "may" is often used to talk about possibilities or likelihoods. It suggests that something is possible or might happen. For example, "It may rain tomorrow" implies that there is a possibility of rain occurring.

Additionally, "may" is used to express polite requests or formal permission. In formal contexts, such as business or official settings, "may" is the preferred choice. For instance, "May I have your attention, please?" or "May I use the restroom?" In these cases, "may" is used to seek permission in a more polite and respectful manner.

It is worth mentioning that "may" can also be used to express uncertainty or doubt. For example, "He may be late" suggests that there is a possibility of him arriving late, but it is not certain.

Differences in Usage

While both "can" and "may" can be used to express permission, there are subtle differences in their usage. "Can" is generally used in informal contexts, whereas "may" is more appropriate in formal situations. For instance, when asking for permission from a teacher or a superior, it is more polite to use "may" instead of "can."

Another difference lies in the level of certainty conveyed. "Can" implies a higher level of certainty compared to "may." When using "can," there is a stronger belief that the action or possibility will occur. On the other hand, "may" suggests a lower level of certainty or a possibility that is less likely to happen.

Furthermore, "can" is often used to express general abilities or permissions, while "may" is used for specific or formal permissions. For example, "I can swim" refers to the general ability to swim, while "May I go swimming?" seeks permission for a specific instance of swimming.

It is important to consider the context and the level of formality when choosing between "can" and "may." Understanding these differences will help ensure accurate and appropriate usage of these modal verbs.


In conclusion, while "can" and "may" are both modal verbs used to express permission or possibility, they have distinct attributes and usage patterns. "Can" primarily focuses on ability and informal permissions, while "may" emphasizes formal permissions, possibilities, and polite requests. Understanding the differences between these two modal verbs is crucial for effective communication in various contexts. So, next time you need to seek permission or express possibility, choose wisely between "can" and "may" to convey your intended meaning accurately.

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