Is it "Can I" or "May I"?

Author:
Publish date:

Q: I still occasionally have to stop and think about the “can” and “may” conundrum. Could you explain the differences once and for all? —Marcus W.

A: This question takes me back to my elementary school days, where my fourth-grade teacher wouldn’t let me be excused to use the restroom unless I asked her for permission correctly. That year my bladder paid a steep price for my grammatical missteps. But I always use the two words correctly now, and I’m hoping that after reading this answer, you will, too.

“Can” and “may” have distinct differences. “Can” expresses the ability to do something, physical or mental. I can lift my daughter over my head. I can add two plus three without a calculator. I can beat our managing editor in a game of Scrabble.

“May,” on the other hand, expresses permission to do something. My mom said I may go to the movies only if I eat all my veggies. May I use the restroom? I may not use the Scrabble example mentioned above per the request of our managing editor who, after fact checking it, found it to be incorrect.

All that being said, the tides of these words have been shifting over the years and, in informal settings, it has become fairly common (and somewhat acceptable) to use “can” when asking for permission. So I wouldn’t call someone out at a dinner party for asking if they “can” use the restroom, but I would definitely change it to “may” if I were editing her novel.

Want more?

Image placeholder title
  • Pick up your copy of the Beginning Writer's Answer Book. For more details about the book, click here.
  • Follow the WD Editors on Twitter: @writersdigest@BrianKlems@JaneFriedman @robertleebrewer @JessicaStrawser @ChuckSambuchino
  • Become a fan at our Facebook page
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not accepting feedback on your writing.

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Here are the top creativity websites as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Proest Dalgron: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn proest dalgron, a Welsh quatrain form.

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

In this post, we look at what a palindrome is when it comes to writing, including several examples of palindromes.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time to set a trap.

5 Ways to Add a Refrain to Your Picture Books (and Why You Should)

5 Ways to Add a Refrain to Your Picture Books (and Why You Should)

Children's author Christine Evans shares how repetition is good for growing readers and gives you the tools to write your story's perfect refrain.

From Our Readers

Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World: From Our Readers (Comment for a Chance at Publication)

This post announces our latest From Our Readers ask: Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World. Comment for a chance at publication in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

Your story belongs to you but will involve other people. Where do your rights end and theirs begin?

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Editor-in-chief Amy Jones navigates how to know your target audience, and how knowing will make your writing stronger.