Misused Words

Can and May

Can is used to show ability.

If you ask "Can I...?" you are asking someone if you have the ability to perform that task, whatever it may be. You are not asking permission to perform that task. For example, if you ask "Can I climb to the top of this mountain?", you are not asking permission to do it, but you are wondering if you have the energy to climb to the top of the mountain.

Therefore, to determine if you should use can or may in a sentence, check whether you are requiring ability or permission.

I can bench press 300 pounds on a good day.

May is used to seek permission.

May I borrow this book?

Quite often a student will raise his hand in the classroom and ask, incorrectly, "Can I leave the room?" He is not asking if he has the ability to leave the room but is asking permission to leave the room. Therefore, he should have asked, "May I leave the room?"

Practice

Choose the correct answer for each of the two practice sentences below by clicking on the correct answer.

(1) You (can, may) have dessert after you eat your meal.

(2) Everyone (can, may) enjoy himself at Disney World.

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