GrammarWords

Difference Between Can and May

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Main Difference

The main difference between Can and May is that Can is an auxiliary verb in the English language that is used to express ability and to ask permission, whereas May is also an English auxiliary verb that is used to express possibility or to seek permission.

Can vs. May

The use of Can is observed in informal talks. As compared to its counter word Can, the verb May is used more in formal situations. Can is an auxiliary verb in the English language that is used to express ability and to ask permission. May is also an English auxiliary verb that is used to express possibility or to seek permission. In the informal situation, ‘Can’ imply the meaning that a person is able to do some task; in informal talks, it is used to ask for permission. May is mostly used formally to take or give permission for doing something; in general, it discusses any possibility or happenings of the future.

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Can refer to the possibility or capability to do something, e.g., ‘I am sure that I can complete my assignment today. May denotes the seeking of permission, e.g. ‘May I take this book?” When seeking permission, Can is used with peers or age fellows as it sounds less formal and less polite. May sounds more formal, and it is correctly used when asking for permission from a teacher or of a person superior in age or rank.

Can is less polite, and it is used in the frank and casual situation of taking permission. May is more polite, and it is used in and making requests, and the situations of courtesy. Can also refer to determine the ability, e.g., ‘Can you lift the table alone?’ May refer to denotes possibility, e.g., You may lift the table alone.

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Comparison Chart

CanMay
An auxiliary verb that is used to express ability and to ask permissionAn English auxiliary verb that is used to express possibility or to seek permission
Use
InformalFormal
Permission
SometimesAlways
Tone
Less politeMore polite

What is Can?

Can is an auxiliary verb that is used to express the physical or mental ability of a person to do something. e.g., “Can you translate this letter into English?” It is also implied to request for something, e.g., Can you pass the pen to the boy sitting next to you? Sometimes it also denotes the possibility, e.g., You can be fine with prevention and care. It is used to offer help or suggestion, e.g., Can I solve the puzzle for you?

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The word Can is derived from the Old English word cunnan, meaning “to be able.” It mainly refers to the capability of a person. In the informal situation, it also asks for permission to do something. If a question asks by implying ‘Can,’ the auxiliary verb can also have ‘Can’ in its answer. e.g., Can you pass me the remote? No, I can’t.

Examples

  • Can you do the salsa?
  • Can you play cricket or tennis?
  • He can complete the level of game within minutes.
  • She can run a six-minute mile.
  • Can I bring that book to you?

What is May?

May is an auxiliary verb that is used to ask for or to grant permission. It is used in formal situations. When someone asks for permission by applying my, then the reply will also be having ‘May’ in the formal situation. For example, if a person says, “May I come inside?” then the other would say, “Yes, you may” or “No, you may not come in.”

May is used for creating more politeness. People prefer using May in the formal scenario, e.g., At a fancy restaurant asking the waiter, “May I have some more water?” However, the word May do not express an ability. The appropriate meanings with May are, it is used to represent the possibility, e.g., She may not like the cake I baked for her. It is used to ask or give permission. Furthermore, May is used to expressing wishes and hopes, e.g., “May all your dreams come true.”

Examples

  • The candidate may bring standard calculators for the exams.
  • May I come in, ma’am?
  • You may take my book to read.
  • May you achieve new heights of success.
  • May you have a happy journey.

Key Differences

  1. Can is an auxiliary verb that is used to express ability and to ask permission. In contrast, May is also an auxiliary verb that is used to express possibility or to seek.
  2. The use of Can is observed in informal talks; on the other hand, May is used more in formal situations.
  3. Can refer to the possibility or capability to do something; on the flip side, May denotes the seeking of permission.
  4. When seeking permission, Can is used with peers or age fellows as it sounds less formal; on the contrary, May sound more formal, and it is correctly used when asking for permission from a teacher or of a person superior in age or rank.
  5. Can is less polite, and it is used in the frank and casual situation of taking permission, while May is more, and it is used in and making requests and the situations of courtesy.
  6. Can is used to express or ask someone’s ability to do something; on the converse, May is used to discussing the possibility or happenings of the future or to ask permission.
  7. Can also refer to determine the ability; conversely, May refers to denotes possibility.

Conclusion

Can and May are the two different auxiliary verbs. Both are having a similar meaning but are different from one another. The difference between them lies in their usage and context.

Aimie Carlson

Aimie Carlson is an English language enthusiast who loves writing and has a master degree in English literature. Follow her on Twitter at @AimieCarlson

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