with Luke Taylor
Mr. Snark, can I use your phone?Often elicit sarcastic responses such as:
I don't know, Linda...CAN you? I think you mean "MAY I use your phone?"What Mr. Snark doesn't realize is that he and Linda are both right. Using the word can to request permission is perfectly fine. It's true. Can and may are modal auxiliary verbs. As Gordon Jarvie describes in the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, modal verbs "help a main verb express a range of meanings." The distinction lies between written English and spoken English. In this case, Linda asked Mr. Snark in conversation if she could use his phone, and spoken language often has more room for idiom than its written counterpart.
Why can't I borrow $50?Whether written or spoken, the first example is technically incorrect, but the second example sounds like a Dickens novel. Incidentally, both words are appropriate when expressing possibility; for example:
Why mayn't I borrow $50?
From this conference room, you can see all the way to the river.None of this is to say that English has no rules, nor that those rules don't matter. But may we use either word when we're having a conversation? We sure can.
The plane may be delayed.