Difference Between Could and May

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: May 02, 2023


Difference Between Could and May

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Could and May are used very commonly while speaking in English while asking a question or just saying something. But, did you know that they are Verbs, precisely, Modal Auxiliary Verbs? Verbs, as you might know, are of various kinds - Regular, Irregular, Helping/Auxiliary, Finite, Non-finite, and Modal verbs. To understand ‘Could and May’ meticulously, let us first find out about Modal Auxiliaries. 

Modal Auxiliaries are verbs used to express ability, permission, possibility, and obligation. A Modal Auxiliary verb provides information about the role of the Main verb that it governs. Modals don't use an ‘s’ for third person singular. They can be made into interrogative form through inversion like ‘I can go.’ becomes ‘Can I go?’ The Modal verbs include- might, will, would, must, shall, should, ought to, could, can, and may.  

Modals are employed very smartly and according to their intention. 

  • We use 'can' or 'could' to signify ability. For example- She can speak several languages. 
  • Verbs like 'must' or 'should' can be used to state that something is necessary or unneeded, or to give a bit of advice. For example- Children must do their schoolwork regularly.
  • We can use verbs like 'can', 'could' and 'may' to request and give permission. We also use modal verbs to say something is not permitted. Example- May I swim in the lake? Can I eat your piece of pastry?
  • We can employ 'will' and 'would' to talk about habits or things we do or did in the past. Example- John will be late as usual. When I lived in London, we would often go out for walks at night.

We shall study 'Could and May' in this particular article. They are Modal Auxiliaries and are different from each other.

Could vs May

Understanding the difference between two Modal Auxiliaries can become a difficult task. People generally do not pay attention to the difference between 'Could and May', and they end up employing them incorrectly. Let's have a quick view of their differences and then we will discuss them in detail. 

They both are often confused because 'Could and May' both have similar functions. They both are employable in asking for permission. But the distinction is in the manner.

May is more formal than ‘Could’. For instance, if we need to ask our teacher for permission, we will use the modal May. “May I go to the library?” Asking for approval from a teacher is formal permission.

Could, on the other hand, can also express Past permissions.

For example- Last year, the players could not party at night. This means, earlier the players were not given the approval of partying at night. It was in the past.

Difference Between Could and May in Tabular Form

Parameters of Comparison Could May
Purpose Could is used to ask for permission in a polite manner. May is used to ask permission in a formal way.
Tense Could is mostly used in the past tense. May is used in the present and future tenses primarily.
Significance It signifies that a particular thing would have happened in the past, but did not happen. It usually states that something can occur in the future.
Pronoun Could is applicable with all three persons in the pronouns. May generally has ‘I’ as the subject in the sentence.
Other Uses ‘Could’ can also be used to express the ability to do something at a specific time in the past. ‘May’ can be used to make or accept an offer formally.
Assertive Sentences
  • She could have passed her examination.
  • He could have performed well yesterday.
  • We may have a celebration tonight.
  • I may pass the exam.
Interrogative Sentences
  • Could you please handle my work?
  • Could she play for twenty minutes more?
  • May I help you with your breakfast?
  • May I pay the bill today?

What is Could?

Could is the third form of Can and a Modal Auxiliary verb. Modal verbs give additional information about the main verb that follows the. They do not change their form. Therefore, in a place where 'Could' is applicable, using another modal can change the intention of the sentence. It suggests that a specific thing would have been conceivable in the past, although it did not occur. ‘Could’ is used in a sentence to symbolise alikeness between one thing and another. In short, ‘Could’ is used by a person to interrogate someone, when one wants to make a humble request, or seek permission for something to happen.

The uses of Could are given below with appropriate examples for making it more clear.

Uses of Could

‘Could’ is sometimes used when one talks about some possibility in the present.

Examples- They could be sleeping now.

Daisy could be the team leader.

They could be at home. 

Could is also used to express someone's ability to do something while ‘could not’ is used to denote inability.

Examples- He could swim like a fish.

She could not say a word on stage.

It is used to express the skill to do something at a definite time in the past.

Examples - I could see you.

She could speak seven languages.

'Could' can be used for asking permission in the present or future.

Examples- Could I play for one more hour? 

Could we go home now?

'Could' expresses Past permission.

Example- Last year hefty vehicles couldn't run on this road.

It can be used to express future possibilities.

For example- Danny could be the next society chairman. 

Sara could be the one who can make her own mark.

'Could' can be employed for expressing requests.

For example-Could I have a cup of tea? 

Could you explain this one time?

It can express past possibilities; which did not happen in the past.

Example- If I had money, I could purchase a scooter. 

If she had a ring, she could have proposed him.

'Could' can be used to express possibilities in the past that are not allowed now.

Example- In the good old days, you could get pure ghee cheap.

Examples of Could

  • They could be at home now.
  • Do you consider you could help me with this problem?
  • When I entered the room, I could smell something weird.
  • She said he could get that pass for me.
  • We could go somewhere tonight.
  • We could go to lunch after the performances are over.
  • I could fix the pipe myself.
  • Could you read that out again, please?
  • I could understand every word of that Japanese film. I didn’t recognize I was that decent at the language.
  • They could come by train.
  • It’s nine o’clock. They could have reached by now.
  • The children couldn’t dance well but they were entertaining.
  • My friends could have danced all night.
  • I could give you my pen if it was working.
  • We could meet this weekend but you were busy.

What is May?

May is one of the most used Modals among people. It has several uses and expresses chances and possibilities. ‘May’ is used in a sentence to denote or determine that something may happen shortly but not for sure with assurance. The word ‘May’ is employed by a person to enquire if something is true in a sentence. People most frequently use ‘May’ to ask or give permission to someone to do something. It is also utilised for asking something in the most polite way, to intrude someone from asking any question or telling what a person would say.

Uses of May

May is used to express possibilities of the present, past and future.

Examples-It may rain tonight.

The flight may have been cancelled.

Harry may join us tomorrow.

Rosy may not like that dress.

May is also used for giving and taking permission. 'May not' is used to deny permission formally.

Example -May I come in?

No, you may not. 

May is used to make a wish in exclamatory sentences.

Examples- May God bless you! 

May you always be happy!

It is used to make or accept an offer formally.

For example- May I give you my opinion on this?

Yes, you may.

May is used for giving unsolicited advice or suggestion. The speaker comes out as very polite while offering advice. The speaker does not attempt to be more knowledgeable or superior; the speaker wants the listener to feel respected.

Examples- You may want to try these pancakes.

You may want to think about their offer again before deciding.

'May' cannot be used with another modal verb.

For example- This may will hurt you. - This is a wrong sentence.

We can use 'may' to accept a separate view or opinion, especially with well, and/or followed by ‘but’. 

For instance- I may be mistaken, but I am going to inform my parents about it. 

Examples of May

  • Your friends may not come for dinner.
  • May I leave the bag here?
  • This may be harmful to you.
  • You may use my notebook if you need to.
  • Charlie may lose the match. 
  • The economy may go up or down in the succeeding year.
  • May I use your sanitizer?
  • We may not have sufficient evidence at this minute.
  • You may have hurt her feelings by not calling her at the function.
  • They may have won the match if it had not rained.
  • May I leave the meeting?
  • The guard may not allow you to enter the gate without your ID card.

Main Differences Between Could and May In Points

  • May is employed to express possibilities of the present, past and future. Whereas, Could is generally used to express possibilities of the Past but may sometimes be used for Present potentials. For example- She could be at home now.
  • 'Could’ states that something might have occurred in the past. For example- He could have become the President last year. Whereas ‘May’ expresses that something can happen in the future. Example- He may become a President the following year.
  • May can be employed in exclamatory sentences for making a wish. Example- May you achieve your goals! But, 'Could' is not used in granting or making a wish.
  • Where, ‘Could’ is used to make requests, ‘may’ is generally used to make a formal offer. For instance- Could I get a glass of water? 

May I give you my opinion on this?

  • 'Could' can be used to express certain activities of the past that are not allowed now. Example- In earlier times, we could trust people trying to be good.

'May' is not used in this sense.

  • We use 'could' to express past abilities. This means that the ability, talent, or skill existed earlier but it no longer exists or is not used anymore. Example- He could run fast before his accident.

'May' is not employed in this manner.

  • Could is also used in expressing hypothetical situations in relation to the past, but May does not express that.

For example- If I had won a lottery, I could have bought a new car.


Summing it up, the primary difference that has become like a highlighter to mark their difference is that 'Could' has a more prominent role in the Past and 'May' is mostly employed in the Present and Future. They both have a similarity but that similarity depends on the person who is listening. May is more formal in terms of asking for permission whereas 'Could' is not utilised for requesting eloquent approvals. 'May' is considered more accurate for such instances.

'Could’ is also used in a sentence occasionally after the word ‘if’ when a person talks about the capability or an opportunity they do not have or did not get, but which they would not mind assuming. On the different side, May can be used in formal writing, especially academic English, to represent things that the author thinks are generally true or possible.

Many more differences are given above in this article more precisely and clearly. The uses of 'Could' and 'May' are essential to comprehend for gaining a finer knowledge of their application in daily life. 


  • https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/may
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_verb
  • https://www.ecenglish.com/learnenglish/lessons/could-modals


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"Difference Between Could and May." Diffzy.com, 2024. Sat. 13 Apr. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-could-and-may-1337>.

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