Sunday, July 26, 2009

When do we use “may” and “can”?

A member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who uses the user name mylabskie posted this question in the Forum the other day:

Hello! Just want to ask when should we use “may” and “can”?

Can I go out?”

May I go out?”

I gave the following answer:

We use the auxiliary verbs “may” or “can” to express possibility, to denote the capacity to do something, or to express permission or ask for it. Our choice between them, however, greatly depends on the level of formality of the situation as well as on the social or professional rank or relative seniority between the speaker and the listener. “Can” leans towards the informal side of saying things, and “may” to the formal side.

Among friends, in particular, it’s expected and much more natural to ask “Can I go out?” than to ask “May I go out?” (To use the latter often draws quizzical looks from the listeners, as if the speaker came from Mars or somewhere else in time.) Conversely, if the speaker is a student addressing a professor in class or someone much more senior in rank or age, it’s considered polite and proper to ask “May I go out?” and rude—even uneducated—to ask “Can I go out?” If you are a lawyer, in fact, a stern judge may even cite you for contempt of court if you asked “Can I see Your Honor in chambers?” instead of “May I see Your Honor in chambers?” This is because in such situations, “can” becomes an improper demand as opposed to “may,” which signifies a plain, humble request.

I must say, though, that this distinction in the usage of “can” and “may” is often not very well appreciated among nonnative speakers of English; it often takes years of social interaction in formal settings or situations for them to understand the difference—and in the interim they are unfairly looked upon as crass or uncouth by socially fastidious people. Thankfully, the acquisition and acclimatization process for the proper usage of “can” and “may” is greatly hastened by reading English-language publications and by exposure to English-language movies and TV shows. In the Philippines where English is the second language, in particular, my feeling is that by the time the typical schooled Filipino turns 10, choosing properly whether to use “may” or “can” has become second nature to him or her. This is something that sets us apart from the people of other countries that don’t have a long English-language heritage like ours.


  1. Thank you for posting about this Mr. Carillo! I haven't encountered problems in using "may" and "can." Not yet, at least. But I wonder, when should we use "will" and "would"? I learned in college that "will" is used when the action is improbable, while "would" indicates an action that is more likely. Am I correct in keeping this guideline in mind, Sir?

  2. From Advice & Dissent:
    "Their pathbreaking research revealed that the brain has as split personality marked by a division of labor between its left and right hemispheres...etc"!

    " split personality...etc"?

    Who proofreads this stuff?

  3. From "Time Out...":
    "But during the Middle Ages in Europe, when you could be put to death at stake for ideas that challenged religious wisdom, you’d most likely cower in mortal fear of your own discovery and just keep it to yourself until your dying day."

    Carillo, who is on record as saying that until you know your idioms, you don't know the language, repeats this "put to death at stake" nonsense.

    The idiom is "burned at the stake".

  4. From Media Watch:

    "Like me, you must have found it exceedingly difficult to grasp what the lead sentence above is trying to say. If you’re still scratching your head why, let me tell you the reason:"

    The idiom is "scratching your head". The "why" is superfluous.

  5. From Media Watch:

    To begin with, “steady demise” is an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory words. The noun “demise” means death or the cessation of existence, which of course is a permanent condition. So how then could “demise” be logically described as “steady”?

    Yes, "demise" means exactly that, but is there anything in the definition that says a demise must be instant? Has Carillo not heard the expressions "slow death", "lingering death", "painful death" and "death by degrees", all of which invoke the concept of time and which are all perfectly acceptable English?

  6. A "corrected" par From "Media Watch":

    This time I’d like to call attention to another tourism story that shows ignorance of the regional geography of the Philippines and their respective tourist attractions.

    "Regional geography" is singular but "attractions" is plural....right?

    Who edits this stuff?

  7. In Essays, Carillo writes:

    “This time, I’ll now go to the advanced sentence-development techniques for giving more substance and feeling to our sentences.”

    The ”now” is superfluous, is it not?

    Or, you could leave “now” in and delete “This time”.

    Who proofreads this stuff?