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“May” I Please Use “Can” in a Sentence?

I’m guessing that just about everyone at one time or another asked of someone, “Can I …? and the person responded, “I don’t know. Can you?” In this case, the person wants the question asked this way: “May I …?”

People who use can and may in this way are defining can as related to ability and may as related to permission, and that’s fine. However, my dictionary’s usage note says that can and may have been used interchangeably related to permission since the 19th century, although some commentators (including me the word snob) prefer may.

These two words also may be used interchangeably related to possibility (“It can happen”/”It may happen”) because something possibly happening might come down to someone granting permission — which puts us back at using can and may interchangeably.

For a similar take, check out Grammar Girl.

Thanks to A. Davies for the idea.

Until next time! Use the right words!


August 23, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,

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