Difference Between Shall and May

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between Shall and May

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Shall and May are two modal auxiliary verbs that are used to indicate future action or possibility. Both verbs are quite similar to each other, however, their usage makes them different from one another.

Shall is traditionally used with the first person, and it indicates future possibility. On the other hand, May is used to represent permission or a request.

There are many differences between these two modal auxiliary verbs even though they both indicate future probability. What distinguishes them from each other is their use of language.

In this article, we shall see how these two verbs are used in different ways and how they differentiate from one another.

Shall vs. May

In English grammar, shall is used to denote the future action or probability, possibility. This is a modal auxiliary verb that is used in the first person and if used in the second or third person, then it denotes command. However, traditionally, shall is supposed to be used in the first person only.

For example, I shall go to college tomorrow.

On the other hand, may is also a modal auxiliary verb. It is used in formal conversation. It is used to seek or grant permission, to request, and express possibility.

For example, May I come in? It may rain today. You may go now.

Difference Between “Shall” and “May” in Tabular form.

Parameters Shall May
Definition Shall is a verb used to denote a possibility in the future. It is used to indicate intention. May is a verb used to denote permission, possibility, hope, or a wish.
Tense Simple Future Tense Simple Present Tense
Usage of past tense “Should” is used to indicate advice, suggestion, or strong suggestion. “Might” indicates possibility or probability.
Past Tense "Should" is a past tense of the verb Shall. "Might" is sometimes used as a past tense of May.
Represents It is used with the first person (I or we), it represents an offer or a suggestion. In general, it denotes a possibility. It represents a request or permission.
Example I shall go to the office tomorrow. It may rain today.
Legal Terms Shall in legal terms denotes command. May in legal terms is used as permission, obligation.
Obligation Shall - when used with the second or the third person, it implies obligation. In legal documents, May indicates the obligation.
Identical terms Most of the time, a will is used as an alternative to 'Shall' "Can" is often confused with "May".
Usage It’s a modal verb and is used to indicate necessity or a possibility. It’s a modal verb and is used to indicate a request and permission.

What is “Shall?”

Shall” is a verb of Simple future tense and is used in many ways in English Grammar. If the tone of the conversation is very formal then “shall” is used. Shall can be used alternatively with will if having a lesser formal conversation. Various usage of “shall” can be observed as follows.

Affirmative sentence

In affirmative sentences, shall is to be used in the first person to show expected possibility in the future. In these sentences, ‘shall’ is written just after the subject and just before the main verb. It is also used when the emphasis is on the formal tone.

For example, I shall write a letter to you. We shall go to the movie tonight.

Interrogative sentence

Interrogative questions that begin with the verb often use ‘shall’ for the future tense. In these sentences, shall is used at the very beginning and it is followed by the subject, main verb, and the rest of the sentence.

For example, Shall I write a letter to you? Shall we go to the picnic next month?

Question tag

In the case of adding a question tag in the future tense sentence, shall is used in the first person.

For example, I shall read it to you, shall I? We’ll go back to the town tomorrow, shall we?

Negative sentence

Shall not’ is a negative form of the verb ‘shall’. Shan’t is an abbreviation of shall not.

For example, I shan’t read to you. We shan’t go back to town tomorrow.

Shall not’ is generally used when we want to put more emphasis on the negativity of the sentence in a formal context.

For example, The Company shall not tolerate this kind of behaviour.

Usage of “shall

Shall is used to indicate suggestion or to ask for permission, to offer something, or to seek a bit of advice.

For example, Shall I come again on Monday? (Asking for permission)

Shall I take this opportunity? (Asking for the suggestion).

Shall I help you with this? (Offer)

What shall we do tonight? (Seeking advice)

Alternate verb

 Will is often used alternatively with shall. Traditionally shall is used in the first person whereas will is used in the second and third person. However, will also be used in the third person if the tone of the sentence is less formal.

For example, we shall follow this rule from today. (Formal)

We will follow this rule from today. (Less formal)

Shall” as a command.

As previously said, shall is not often used in the second or third sentence. When used in the second and third person, it indicates command most formally and puts more focus on the command.

For example, He shall not go outside. You shall never lie to your family.

Forms of “shall

Shall is a simple future tense verb and does not have any present participle. The past participle of shall is “should”. “Should” can be used in many different ways. In general, should is used to indicate strong advice.

For example, you should apply for this job.

“Should” can also be used to give suggestions to act upon in a particular situation.

For example, they should build a railway station here. You should consider India for your vacation.

Should have or shouldn’t have

Should have is used to express regret. It is used to indicate things that were supposed to be done in the past but were not done.

For example, I should have spoken to you about this earlier.

I shouldn’t have wasted my time on the computer.

Again, like shall, should is much more formal than would and it is often confused with the verb would.

Legal terms

Shall is an obligatory command that generally indicates that specific acts are required rather than permissible. It suggests that a person has a responsibility or obligation to do something. The word 'shall' is used in contracts to impose responsibilities or duties on the contract's parties.

For example, Mr. Karan shall pay Mr. Arun full compensation for his losses.

What is “May?”

May” is used in English grammar to indicate a future possibility. It is also commonly used for seeking permission or granting permission. ‘May’ is often confused with ‘can’, but May is used in a formal conversation and it adds up the politeness.

Affirmative sentence

In positive phrases, "may" is used in the first person to indicate a future possibility. 'May' is put right after the subject and before the primary verb in these phrases. May cannot be used in conjunction with another modal verb.

For example, I may go to the mall today. It may fall down tonight.

Interrogative sentence

Interrogative statements that begin with a verb frequently employ the present tense 'may.' In these sentences, may is used first, followed by the subject, primary verb, and the body of the phrase.

Question tag

In tag questions, the word "may" is rarely used. Whereas may denotes permission, mayn't is often used as a tag, but this is formal or outdated.  “May” denotes possibility, mightn't is commonly used as a tag. In the statement clause, "may not" is used instead of "mayn't."

For example, I may buy a car tomorrow, mightn't I?

Nowadays, “won’t” is also used as a negative question tag for “may”.

For example, I may buy a car tomorrow, won’t I?

Negative sentence

The negative version of the verb 'May' is 'May not.' the abbreviation mightn't is outdated now. 

In an informal context, the phrase 'may not' is commonly employed to emphasize the sentence's negative probability.

For example, we may not yet know the exact cure for this disease.

We may not go to the airport today.

Usage of “May

May is used in a formal tone to seek or grant permission in positive sentences and refuse the permission in a negative statement. We use the word may indicate a slight possibility in the present and future.

For example,

May I eat your sandwich? (Seeking permission)

You may eat my sandwich. (Granting permission)

You may not eat my sandwich. (Refusing permission)

He may/ may not eat my sandwich. (Expecting possibility)

Alternate verb

Can is commonly used as an alternative to the verb “may”. However, this may change the tone of the sentence slightly. May is a little more formal and polite. Can is used in informal conversation. Both verbs indicate the future possibility. This can be understood with an example.

A 100-year-old monastery can be seen amidst mountains.

A 100 years old monastery may be seen amidst mountains.

In both statements, the possibility is predicted. However, the latter statement sounds more formal.

Forms of May

The tense of May is a simple present tense. This modal verb only has a simple past tense form that is Might. But, both May and might are used interchangeably in both past and present tense. They are used when the narrator is not sure about the possibility.

For example, I may go to the movie tonight.

I might go to the movie tonight.

In both cases, the meaning of the statement does not change.

I may have kept the pen here. (Past tense)

I might have kept the pen here. (Past tense)

Legal Terms

In legal terms, in a contract clause or specification, ‘may’ signifies permissive. The word "may" does not imply "necessary." "May" denotes "has the right but not the responsibility" to do something, but "may not" indicates "does not have the right to do anything."

The words "may" or "need not" indicate that a technique is optional. May denotes anything that is not required but is allowed. May denotes that the activity is permissible if it complies with the rules of this chapter in legal forms.

For example, a garnishment may be issued to an employer.

Main Differences between “Shall” and “May” in Points

  • Shall is used to indicate future expected action or intention whereas may is used to denote permission, denying permission, and future action.
  • Shall is used in future tense only to indicate possibility with both singular and plural subjects. However, may is used in the present tense as well as past tense with both singular and plural subjects.
  • Both "must" and "may" have various meanings in different circumstances. The word "must" is used to communicate proposals, ideas, and demands. Meanwhile, "may" is employed for permission, demonstrating capacity, and indicating commitment.
  • The usage of both phrases in the context of a possibility is one shared denominator. "Shall" denotes a manifestation of possibilities, whereas "may" denotes an inferred potential.
  • Both verbs are used with a sense of obligation. When used in the second and third person, "must" indicates this. In the meantime, when used in a legal document, the word "may" might carry the connotation of duty.
  • Past participle if “shall” is “Should” and past participle of “May” is “Might”.
  • Shall is often confused with the verb will and may is generally confused with the verb can. However, they can be used alternatively without the meaning is changed. Shall and may are preferred in formal conversations.
  • Should is used to indicate strong suggestions or possibilities in the future. On the other hand, might is used alternatively with the verb may or might.


Both may and shall are modal auxiliary verbs used to indicate future possibility. They both are used in their original forms with both singular and plural subjects in formal conversations. What makes them different from one another is the meaning they convey. The significant difference in the meanings is seen in their legal terms. As part of the question, both "shall" and "may" can be used. Similarly, with "must" or "may" in the question, both words can be included in the answer


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"Difference Between Shall and May." Diffzy.com, 2024. Wed. 21 Feb. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-shall-and-may-89>.

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