Proper Use of May and Can

There is often some confusion that arises in the proper usage of MAY and CAN. Each serve a distinctly separate purpose.

The two words seem as though they could be interchangeable in a sentence but they are words which have two distinctly different meanings.  

There is a proper and an improper way to use the word MAY and CAN. While both MAY and CAN are auxiliary verbs each has a very distinct meaning and the usage of either one within a sentence can change the context of that sentence dramatically. 

They are mood setting words which set the tone of a question or sentence but whereas MAY is a word which requests permission CAN indicates the ability or capability to accomplish something. They are two of the most often confused words in our English language.

Example of the Interpretation of MAY and CAN when they are used in very similar sentences. Note the completely different meaning of the question when CAN and MAY are interchanged.

Question: “MAY I go to the park?”
Reply: “Yes, you MAY.”

The use of May in this sentence leads one to assume that the person asking the question wants to know if they are allowed to go to the park. The are asking permission by using the word MAY in their sentence. MAY is a word which asks permission.

Question: “CAN I go to the park?”
Reply: “The park is across the lake, so if you have a boat, then you CAN go to the park.”

The use of CAN in this same question completely changes the context behind it. 

Now rather than asking permission to go to the park the question is turning into a query as to whether or not they will be physically able to go to the park. CAN is a word indicating capability or physical control of a situation.

By using both words within the same question you can see the distinct differences between the two words. “You CAN go to the park but you MAY not because you are not allowed to.” CAN is the physical ability to perform an action while MAY is the permission to perform that action.

Can I talk? (Am I physically able to talk?)
May I talk? (Do I have permission to talk?)

Can I drive the car? (Am I capable of driving the car?)
May I drive the car? (Do I have permission to drive the car?)

You can see how the mood of the question changes when CAN and MAY are used within the same basic sentence structure. MAY asks permission to perform the action while CAN asks if there is the physical capability to perform the action. With patient practice it does become quite easy to see the proper context in which each word should be used.

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