Can I, May I

Can I Go to the Bathroom? No, You May Not!

by Owen Fourie

Ouch! This question was asked by a girl in the third grade. Obviously, she needed to go, but the teacher kept her waiting to teach a lesson about the use of can and may.

It was an awkward moment and probably not the best occasion for that lesson.

Nevertheless, the students in that third grade class are college graduates now, and they learned a lesson then that they have not forgotten.

The teacher’s full response to the little girl—more appropriate for an older child—was “I don’t doubt your ability to go to the bathroom, but you do not have my permission to go. You may not go!

Can I … may I … the difference

The lesson is simple:

  • When asking for permission to do something, use may.
  • When asking if someone thinks you have the ability to do something, use can.

Why can I is used instead of may I

Confusion about can and may still exists. One reason for this could be that the use of can instead of may in negative contexts is better.

If you have been told that your parents’ car is not available for you to use on Friday evening, and you really have need of it, you might still try to get permission by asking,

Mayn’t I use the car this evening?

This really sounds weird, doesn’t it? It would sound better if you ask,

Can’t I use the car this evening?

Another reason for can being used instead of may in requesting permission is that children pick it up in parental statements giving permission.

After you have swept the garage, you can watch Sesame Street.

Such use doesn’t diminish the need to maintain the distinction between may and can in questions of permission and ability.

Associate may I with permission

When asking for permission to do something that you are quite capable of doing, always use may:

May I wash the dishes?

Wow! Yes… You have been wanting to do this for a while, but your younger siblings have been in training, and they’ve taken away your opportunities to show your skill.

Associate can I with ability

However, if you are usually clumsy and prone to breaking things, but you have a sudden desire to wash the dishes, you should consider your ability to do so beforehand:

Can I wash the dishes?



Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome. Are there other usages where it seems that you could use one form or the other, but you are not sure if it is a genuine alternative or an error? Ask here for clarification.

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