Difference Wiki

Could vs. May: What's the Difference?

Edited by Sumera Saeed || By Sara Rehman || Published on December 12, 2023
"Could" is used to express possibility or past ability, while "may" indicates permission or a higher likelihood of occurrence.

Key Differences

"Could" is often used to suggest a possibility that is more hypothetical or uncertain, while "may" suggests a possibility that is more likely or real.
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023
"Could" is used to talk about someone's ability in the past, whereas "may" does not have a function related to ability.
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023
"May" is traditionally used to ask for or give permission, reflecting a more formal or polite tone. "Could," in contrast, can be used for permission but is less formal.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 12, 2023
When talking about the likelihood of events, "may" implies a greater probability than "could." "Could" is often used in speculative situations.
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023
"May" is generally more formal and polite than "could." The use of "may" in formal requests or permissions is common, while "could" is often used in more casual or informal contexts.
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023
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Comparison Chart

Usage

Indicates possibility or past ability
Indicates permission or likelihood
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023

Tone

Less formal, more hypothetical
More formal, indicates higher likelihood
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023

Context

Often used in speculative or hypothetical scenarios
Used in formal requests or permissions
Sumera Saeed
Dec 12, 2023

Expressing Ability

Refers to past abilities
Not used for expressing ability
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023

Probability

Implies lower probability
Implies higher probability or possibility
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023
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Could and May Definitions

Could

Past Ability.
She could play the piano when she was younger.
Sara Rehman
Nov 24, 2023

May

Formal Request.
May I have your attention, please?
Aimie Carlson
Nov 24, 2023

Could

Polite Request.
Could you please pass the salt?
Sara Rehman
Nov 24, 2023

May

Probability.
It may rain later today.
Aimie Carlson
Nov 24, 2023

Could

Possibility.
It could rain tomorrow.
Aimie Carlson
Nov 24, 2023

May

Expressing Wishes.
May you have a prosperous New Year.
Harlon Moss
Nov 24, 2023

Could

Hypothetical Situations.
If I had time, I could learn Spanish.
Aimie Carlson
Nov 24, 2023

May

Permission.
May I leave the table?
Sumera Saeed
Nov 24, 2023

Could

Suggesting Options.
You could try calling the helpline.
Sara Rehman
Nov 24, 2023

May

Speculative Statements.
The results may vary depending on the data.
Sara Rehman
Nov 24, 2023

Could

Inflection of can
Sara Rehman
Nov 23, 2023

May

A hawthorn or its blossoms.
Sara Rehman
Nov 23, 2023

Could

Used as a past subjunctive (contrary to fact).
I think he could do it if he really wanted to.
I wish I could fly!
Sara Rehman
Nov 23, 2023

May

The fifth month of the year in the Gregorian calendar. See Table at calendar.
Sara Rehman
Nov 23, 2023

FAQs

Can 'could' be used for requests?

Yes, but it's less formal than 'may.'
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023

When is 'may' used?

For permission or indicating likelihood.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 12, 2023

Can 'could' suggest options?

Yes, like "You could try this method."
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023

Can 'may' indicate probability?

Yes, it often suggests higher likelihood.
Harlon Moss
Dec 12, 2023

How is 'may' used in wishes?

As in "May you have a good trip."
Aimie Carlson
Dec 12, 2023

Does 'could' imply certainty?

No, it implies uncertainty or hypothetical situations.
Harlon Moss
Dec 12, 2023

Is 'could' suitable for formal situations?

Less so, 'may' is preferred in formal contexts.
Aimie Carlson
Dec 12, 2023

Is 'may' formal for permission?

Yes, it's more formal and polite.
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023

What is 'could' mainly used for?

To express possibility or past ability.
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023

Does 'may' have a past tense form?

No, it's primarily present tense.
Sara Rehman
Dec 12, 2023

Is 'may' used for expressing wishes?

Yes, especially in formal or traditional contexts.
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023

Can 'may' be used in speculative statements?

Yes, for example, "The results may vary."
Harlon Moss
Dec 12, 2023

What indicates a lower probability, 'could' or 'may'?

'Could' usually indicates lower probability.
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023

What's the main difference in usage between 'could' and 'may'?

'Could' is for hypotheticals and past ability, 'may' for permission and likelihood.
Harlon Moss
Dec 12, 2023

Does 'may' express past abilities?

No, that's a function of 'could.'
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023

Is 'could' appropriate for polite requests?

Yes, but 'may' is more formal.
Janet White
Dec 12, 2023

In what context is 'could' more speculative?

In scenarios that are less likely or uncertain.
Harlon Moss
Dec 12, 2023

Can 'could' be used for future possibilities?

Yes, like "It could happen tomorrow."
Aimie Carlson
Dec 12, 2023

How does 'could' express hypotheticals?

Through conditional sentences, like "If I had time, I could..."
Aimie Carlson
Dec 12, 2023

How is 'may' used in formal requests?

As in "May I speak to the manager?"
Aimie Carlson
Dec 12, 2023
About Author
Written by
Sara Rehman
Sara Rehman is a seasoned writer and editor with extensive experience at Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Information Technology, she combines her academic prowess with her passion for writing to deliver insightful and well-researched content.
Edited by
Sumera Saeed
Sumera is an experienced content writer and editor with a niche in comparative analysis. At Diffeence Wiki, she crafts clear and unbiased comparisons to guide readers in making informed decisions. With a dedication to thorough research and quality, Sumera's work stands out in the digital realm. Off the clock, she enjoys reading and exploring diverse cultures.

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