Monday, September 1st, 2008

MM: May vs Can


“Mom, can I have a cookie?”
“May I.”
“Oh, right. Mom, may I have a cookie?

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

How about this one?

“It’s been really nice meeting you. So, er, can I call you later?”
“I don’t know, can you?”

There’s nothing quite like using grammar usage to put someone in their place, huh? (You know, once you’ve gotten past the somewhat small-minded, school-yardish intention.)

The distinction is really quite simple.

“Can” is used to describe ability. Is it physically possible for you to eat one more cookie? Are you able to dial a telephone?

“May” implies permission. If I take another cookie, will you yell at me? Will you hang up on me if I venture to call you?

What do you think? Does that cover everything? Or is there more nuance involved?

And, Happy Labor Day for those of you in the U.S.–it’s so very nice NOT to have to go to the office today! Especially considering that our weather here in NJ is just gorgeous today. Though our prayers are with the folks on the Gulf Coast, facing Hurricane Gustav.

4 Comments on “MM: May vs Can”

  1. Gillian

    Canada has Labour Day too. I wonder if Mexico does. Stay well.

  2. Oh, this is always a tricky one! “Can” just always wants to come out, even when “may” is correct. I’ve wondered if the grammarians will ever just make it official. On the other hand, I think I might like to develop the “may I” habit, but I’m not sure if it will feel natural. A conundrum!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..September News & Announcements

  3. Yes, but this isn’t so much grammar as basic definition … you’d have to totally redefine the word “Can” for it to work! (You know, not like THAT’s ever happened before.)

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: May vs Can

  4. @Deb, Yeah, I agree. It would require redefinition. I used “may” on a comment I left recently thanks to this post. Maybe we just need more reminders ;)

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..September News & Announcements