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Difference between can or may

DALL·E 2024 02 10 20.21.38 A visual representation of the concepts of permission and possibility incorporating symbolic elements like doors opening keys and question marks i

In the English language, the terms “can” and “may” both play significant roles, yet they are often used interchangeably in informal settings despite their distinct grammatical functions and meanings. This article aims to clarify the differences and proper uses of “can” and “may” to enhance understanding and accuracy in communication.

Quick Facts Table

Part of SpeechModal VerbModal Verb
Primary UseAbility, PossibilityPermission, Possibility
Example Sentence“I can swim very fast.”“You may leave the table.”

Difference Between “Can” OR “May”

Definition of Can

"Can" is used to express ability or possibility. It indicates whether someone or something is capable of doing something or if a situation might occur.

Definition of May

"May" is primarily used to express permission or possibility, often in a more formal context than "can." It suggests a degree of politeness or uncertainty.

Origin of Can

“Can” originates from the Old English cunnan, meaning “to know, know how.”

Origin of May

“May” comes from the Old English mæg, meaning “to be able.”


  • Can: /kæn/ (informal settings might hear /kən/ as in “I can go.”)
  • May: /meɪ/

Comparing Can and May

When comparing “can” and “may,” it’s important to recognize their unique applications in English grammar:

  • Can is often used to express physical or mental ability, while May suggests permission or a possibility that is less certain.
  • Can is considered less formal than May, which is preferred in polite requests or formal permissions.
  • Historically, May has been the correct choice for expressing permission, though modern usage has blurred this distinction, especially in American English.

Comparison Table

FormalityLess FormalMore Formal
UseAbility, LikelihoodPermission, Possibility
ContextEveryday ConversationsFormal Requests, Written Permissions

Usage in Sentences with Explanations

Use of Can in Sentences

  1. “I can speak three languages.” (Ability)
    • This sentence showcases the speaker’s multilingual ability.
  2. “It can rain in the desert, though it’s rare.” (Possibility)
    • Indicates the possibility of rain in a usually dry area.
  3. “Can you pass me the salt?” (Informal Permission)
    • A casual way of asking for the salt.
  4. “We can see the stars from here.” (Ability)
    • Expresses the ability to view stars from a certain location.
  5. “This strategy can save us time.” (Possibility)
    • Suggests a possible outcome of saving time with a strategy.

Use of May in Sentences

  1. “You may start your exam now.” (Permission)
    • Formal permission to begin an examination.
  2. “There may be traffic on the way home.” (Possibility)
    • Indicates the uncertainty of encountering traffic.
  3. “May I leave the table?” (Formal Permission)
    • A polite way to ask if one can leave the dinner table.
  4. “She may visit us next summer.” (Possibility)
    • Uncertain plans for a future visit.
  5. “May you have a prosperous year ahead.” (Wish)


Understanding the distinctions between “can” and “may” enhances clarity and precision in English communication. “Can” is typically used for expressing ability or likelihood, while “may” is more about seeking or granting permission and discussing possibilities. Recognizing the context and formality required will guide the appropriate choice between these two modal verbs.

Commonly Asked Questions

  • Can “can” and “may” be used interchangeably?
    • In informal contexts, yes, but in formal settings, it’s better to use them according to their specific meanings.
  • Is “may” outdated?
    • No, “may” is not outdated; it’s still used for formal permissions and to express possibilities politely.
  • How can I remember the difference between “can” and “may”?
    • Think of “can” for ability and “may” for permission.
  • Do “can” and “may” have the same level of certainty?
    • No, “can” often suggests a higher degree of certainty than “may,” which implies possibility or permission with a sense of uncertainty.
Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith, writer at, blends creativity with insight, exploring technology, culture, and psychology. With a background in English Literature, she crafts engaging stories inspired by nature and urban life. Outside writing, she enjoys exploring and continuous learning.View Author posts

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