As I child, did you ever ask your teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” only to be corrected “I don’t know, can you?” You’d look confusedly at her, and she’d say, “It’s may I go the bathroom.” You grumbled “May I go the bathroom?” and with hall pass in hand head off to do your business.
Yet somehow that lesson didn’t seem to sink in for a lot of writers, who still confuse can and may in adulthood.
Can is a helping verb that means physical or mental ability; to wit, Can Kieran play basketball really well? A form of able or capable always can replace can in a sentence, as in Is Kieran capable of playing basketball really well?
May is a helping verb that requests permission, as in May I go with Mary to the concert, Mom? Or suggests the possibility of, as in Tomorrow may be a snow day.
This distinction between can and may only exists when asking a question. If answering a may question (May I turn the channel? ) with a “no” or a denial, you can respond with a version of can:
• You may not turn the channel.
• You cannot turn the channel
• You can’t turn the channel.
Of course, may and can slowly are becoming interchangeable in daily use. A century from now (and maybe sooner), the distinctions outlined here may be archaic. For the time being, when in a formal situation or being polite, always use the grammatically correct version described here.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.