when to use 'can' and when to use 'may'

Can I? Or May I?

Writers Write is a writing resource. This post will help you to know when to use ‘can’ and when to use ‘may’ in your writing.

When To Use ‘Can’ And When To Use ‘May’

Is one of these two sentences ‘more correct’ than the other?

  • Can I ask you a few questions?
  • May I ask you a few questions?

There is a widespread view that using can to ask for permission is wrong and that it should only be used in expressions to do with ability or capability, for example: ‘Can she swim?’ or ‘Can you speak Italian?’

Both sentences are correct. 

But the ‘permission’ use of can is correct in standard English. The only difference between the two verbs is that ‘may’ is more polite than ‘can.

Top Tip: In informal contexts it’s acceptable to use can. In formal situations it is better to use may.

From Oxford Dictionaries Online

when to use 'can' and when to use 'may'

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Punctuation For Beginners: What Is Punctuation?
  2. Grammar For Beginners: All About Parts Of Speech
  3. Active vs Passive
  4. Why You Need Strong Verbs When You Write
  5. The Four Most Important Things To Remember About Pacing
  6. Analysing Agatha – How to become the best-selling novelist of all time

[Top Tip: If you need practical help with your grammar, buy The Complete Grammar Workbook.]

Posted on: 25th March 2016