Can We Talk about “Can” and “May”?

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When I was in school, it went like this:

Me: Can I go to the bathroom?

Teacher: I don’t know, can you?

Me: I mean, may I go to the bathroom?

When I taught high school English, I was slightly more creative.

Student: Can I go to the bathroom?

Me: Why are you asking me? Don’t you know?

or

Student: Can I go to the bathroom?

Me: Probably. Most people do it several times a day.

or

Student: Can I go to the bathroom?

Me: This is a trick question, right?

The idea was the same — use humor to teach the difference between can and may. Well, humor and a little humiliation. I did it because it had been done to me, and I assumed the can/may distinction was important. Can is about ability and may is for asking permission. But is the distinction really that clear? Or that important?

Regular readers here probably can see this coming: Language changes. Grammar rules grow fuzzy and sometimes disappear altogether. New words get coined while others fade and vanish. The use of can to ask for permission is an example. Merriam-Webster lists as a second definition for can, “have permission to.” It also includes the following note:

The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts.

In other words, it wasn’t my generation that began asking “Can I go to the bathroom?” Using can to ask permission has been common for more than a hundred years in both spoken and written English. It’s time to admit that popular usage has wrought a change here.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t like it. I think may is a useful word. It avoids potential ambiguity for sentences like “Can I climb this ladder?” Is the speaker asking about possibility or permission? Restricting permission to may makes things tidier.

So, I will do my best to continue to differentiate can and may. I will continue to recommend that students stick to the distinction in formal writing as well.  But I think I’ll just let kids go to the bathroom without any hassle.

By the way, can’t is almost always preferred to the ungainly mayn’t, regardless of meaning.

*****

If you have any comments, you may leave them below. If you can.

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko12-04-2013

    You can like it or not, Cheryl. Every word you use was defined through popular use. How else do you think words come into existence? Not by divine or governmental fiat. Language always has and always will evolve and mutate. I don’t know who or what Wena is, but there is nothing to worry about. Thousands of words we use every day used to mean something different or were spelled or pronounced differently and the only thing that changed them was popular use. 🙂

  2. CFloyd
    CFloyd07-11-2013

    I just don’t like it. I don’t like changing definition or usage just because it’s popular. How are we to avoid ending up like Wena? w00t w00t.

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