Difference Between Can and May

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between Can and May

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If you're a student, you've probably had or seen your peers being questioned about their use of Can I to May I? Unfortunately, this is a standard error that teachers correct. As a result, it's critical to understand the distinction clear to avoid any misunderstanding. As a result, we'll go over the differences between can and may in this post to ensure no misconceptions about their usage. To begin with, both can and may are modal verbs that reflect mood when used with main verbs. Furthermore, whether you can use them interchangeably depends on the situation.

We will better understand these words if we discuss their meanings. It can be used to express someone's ability to perform a task. On the other hand, the term may denote the possibility of something happening. Because they do not have distinct meanings, it is simple to use can and may in a conventional context. When we ask for permission, such as Can I or May I? the situation becomes more complicated. May is the classic option but can also become a popular modern option. Let's find out more about it.

Can is more commonly used in informal conversations, while may is most widely used in official discussions. The word can also imply that a person can perform a specific duty. When using may, it's easy to get confused about whether permission is possible. For example, the sentence 'Guests may have validated their tickets may be acceptable if you mean 'permitted to' or 'will possibly.' However, if you wish to indicate 'able to,' can is preferable to may.

When used in the context of possibility, May refers to the present, past, and future. It has both positive and negative connotations. The expressions can and might can be used while seeking permission. Only a positive form exists, which can be used in the past, present, or future tense. The word can is a modal verb as well. The essential term can alter depending on the time, context, and form employed.

Can vs. May

The significant distinction between can and may is that it can refer to having the ability to accomplish something or being permitted to execute a task. In contrast, it may refer to discussing a future possibility or event. Can and may are two different terms that are used interchangeably. This resemblance is what causes the two terms to be misunderstood. Both times are auxiliary words with an infinitive after them. Both can be used as modal verbs. Both act differently as modal verbs depending on the tenses (or time aspects) and their positive or negative forms.

The words "may" and "can" commonly express possibility or authorization. The term can be used in informal or casual circumstances in this meaning. Can's formal counterpart is may.

On the other hand, the word may be employed to discuss future possibilities or events. It can also be used to ask for or give permission to accomplish something. Now consider the following examples to grasp the distinction between can better and may:

  • Can you ride the bike? Or May I ride your bike?
  • Joseph can come tomorrow. Or Joseph may come tomorrow.

In the first example, the word 'can' is used to determine a person's ability to do something, whereas may is used to request consent. Our following example describes the possibility but may denote a high likelihood, whereas it can denote an expectation.

Capacity is also determined by the ability to. 'Can you do the work by yourself?' for example. It also means "possibility" in the case of May. The following example exemplifies it. 'You may stay in my villa next week.' 'I may be late returning from vacation.' The speaker here is speculating on a possibility.

Difference Between Can And May in Tabular Form

Parameter Of Comparison Can May
Meaning The term "can" refers to a person's ability to perform a task May can be used in a phrase to express something's feasibility or permissibility.
Permission It can convey ability and is often used informally to request permission. The word may is used to suggest potential or to request permission.
Context Informal in nature. Formal in nature.
Some Examples Team A can win this match.

Can you speak clearly?

Can I have your number?

May I go outside?

This may not be true.

May I check your bag?

Nature It simply defines possibility, so it’s an expression. It is a possibility to its strength in nature
Auxiliary Verb Can is an auxiliary verb (also known as an assisting verb or a modal verb) that denotes physical or mental ability. May is also an auxiliary verb that means "possibility" or "license."


What Is Can?

Can is an auxiliary verb that expresses a person's physical or mental ability to perform a task. "Can you translate this letter into English?" for example. Can denote a higher degree of potential, whereas it may denote a lower degree of probability. The term can also express one party's encouragement and incentive to another. It can also be used to make a request, such as "Can you hand the pen to the boy sitting next to you?" It can also mean "possibility," as in "You can be fine with prevention and care." Finally, it's used to aid or recommend, such as "Can I solve the puzzle for you?"

Can come from the Old English word cunning, which means "to be able." It primarily relates to a person's skill. It also asks for permission to do something in an informal environment. If a question implies 'Can,' the auxiliary verb's answer can also include' Can you pass the remote to me, for example? No, can't

  • The term "can" refers to a person's ability to perform a task.
  • The term 'can' means 'to be able to,' which refers to a person's ability.
  • Can is a word that expresses capability and is often used to beg permission informally. It's also used to see whether something is possible or seek permission to do something informally.
  • The term 'can' is used to describe someone's ability to do something or discuss any possibility.
  • In general, we use the phrase can ask for something informally.
  • Examples: Can you pass me the book? Are you able to communicate clearly?

Now we know the definition but now let's talk about how to use the word can:

1. It indicates the ability of a person:

Some examples are: -

  • Can you translate this letter into German?
  • She can help us in solving the math problem.
  • However, I can do it by myself.

2. To ask for permission:

Some examples are: -

  • You can keep your belongings on the table.
  • You can take a selfie with your aunt.
  • Can I get a pen?
  • Can I borrow your dress?
  • Can you help me with question number 5?

3. To request something:

Some examples are: -

  • Can you pass this message to your sister?
  • Please, can I get your pen for a moment?

4. To represent the possibility:

Some examples are: -

  • Can I expect you to join us the day after tomorrow?
  • If your age is 60+ years, you can get retirement benefits.

5. To give an offer or suggestion:

Some examples are: -

  • Can I bring that book to you?
  • Can I play on your behalf?

What Is May?

The auxiliary word may is used to request or grant permission. It's only used in formal settings. For example, when someone begs for approval by using mine, the proper response will additionally include the word 'May.' If someone asks, "May I come inside?" the other responds with either "Yes, you may" or "No, you may not."

May is utilized to increase politeness. People prefer to use May in formal situations, such as asking the server, "May I have some more water?" in a fancy restaurant. On the other hand, the word May does not denote a skill. May represents the possibility of anything happening; for example, she may not like the cake I cooked for her. It's a phrase that's used to request or grant permission. May is also known for expressing wishes and hopes, such as "May all your dreams come true."May is a term that can be used to describe something's feasibility or permissibility. In English, the term 'may' conveys any form of potential regarding future events or incidents. May is a word used to describe potential or request permission. It can also be used to give and receive permission to do something. The term' may' is employed to take or provide consent to/from another individual. It's also used when there's a good chance of something happening. In general, the word may express a formal request for or approval of something. May I go outside? This might not be the case.

Now, using the following principles as a guide, let's look at how to use them:

  1. To represent the possibility:

Some examples are: -

  • The exams may start next month.
  • She may not like the shoes; we brought for her.

2. It can be used to ask for or gain permission in the following ways:

Some examples are: -

  • The candidate may bring stationery for the exams.
  • May I come in, ma’am?
  • You may take my book to read.

3. For wishes and hopes:

Some examples are: -

  • May you achieve new heights of success.
  • May you have a happy journey.
  • May all your dreams come true.

Main Differences Between Can and May in Points

  1. The word can refer to a task's ability to be completed or a person's capability. Still, it also refers to the possibility of a work that exists and the likelihood of it occurring.
  2. The word may have a formal ring to it, and the chances of receiving a yes or affirmation are higher, but the term can have a more casual ring to it, and the possibilities are lower.
  3. It's possible that the term was first used millennia ago. Many manuscripts have sentences that use the word may; however, can is a relatively modern word compared to the term may.
  4. The term may not be expressible, although the word can is. It's not that kind because May is official, while 'can' has an informal tone. In comparison to the latter, it may have a more robust nature.
  5. "May I go to the park?" "May I come tomorrow to discuss the agenda?" "May you win this match?" "May I go walking?" are some examples of phrases employing may. "I can arrive tomorrow," "Can I run 10 miles in one go?" and "I can complete this work" are examples of phrases containing the word can.
  6. The words 'can' and 'may' are modal verbs that denote a person's ability to do something and indicate any potential. On the other hand, the term may be used to ask for or grant permission from another person. It's also used when there's a good chance of something happening.
  7. Can and may are both used to ask for or receive permission, although may is more common and formal.
  8. In general, we use the phrase can ask for something informally. On the other hand, May is used to begging for or authorizing something formally.


When employed in phrases, these two words form an auxiliary verb with a profound meaning. What matters most is how you put it to use and put it into practice. Unfortunately, many people become perplexed and interchange words, changing the entire meaning of a sentence. The terms can and may are auxiliary verbs frequently used in conjunction when discussing potential or permission. For example, 'When someone can perform something or when you have permission to do something, the word 'can' is used.

It is critical to comprehend the context. Unless you understand the circumstance or the meaning of these two words, something strange will happen. Remember that the word can refer to the ability to memorize and differentiate successfully and the act of requesting permission. Furthermore, both can and may be used to respond to a question or recommendation from a third party. It serves as a confirmation or denial of action. Another significant distinction is that it can have a negative form, can't. Cannot is the long-form of this contraction. On the other hand, Mayn't or may not is the negative version of May. However, unlike may, can, and can't, this term isn't as generally used or as appropriate.



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"Difference Between Can and May." Diffzy.com, 2024. Sun. 14 Apr. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-can-and-may-234>.

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