Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Get It Right: Can And May

Perhaps you've heard in the past that you shouldn't say "Can I go to the toilet?" as can refers to being able to do something, and you're not asking whether you're physically capable of using a restroom, but rather asking if you have permission to do so.

So what are the differences between these two words and when should you use them?

Can you do the can-can?
Can

The word "can" refers to the ability to do something. It's also a type of metal container, but in this context we're not talking about that.

In fact, "can" may be used when asking permission. The only difference between can and may is register. It is more formal to use "may", but over the years it has become socially acceptable to use "can". However, if you ask someone from an older generation, they will be much more likely to tell you that "can" should never be used for permission.

May

The word "may" is indeed used to ask for permission, but as we showed you before, it is not uniquely used to ask for permission, just when you need to be polite.

Do you have any other grammatical pet peeves? Tell us about them in the comments below. We'll be sure to write about them if we haven't already!