Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 22: Can-Can...and May

"The American Heritage Book of English Usage" states that "Generations of teachers have insisted that can should be used only to express the capacity to do something and that may must be used to express permission."

Which is why questions like:
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.

Strictly speaking, if Linda were putting her request in writing, it's probably better to stick to the letter of the law and use may to seek permission and can to express capacity.

That said, even written English is more descriptive than prescriptive. Consider the can v. may argument in the negative form:
Why can't I borrow $50?
Why mayn'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:
From this conference room, you can see all the way to the river.
The plane may be delayed.
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.

Sources: The American Heritage Book of English Usage, and from The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie.

Music from this Episode: "Mother May I" by Northern State; "Can I Get Get Get" by Junior Senior.

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