May / Can

Express permission, request, suggestion, invitation

cigarette butt

 

 

 

Permission

MORE FORMAL

Giving permission, making requests and offering suggestions require the speaker to be aware of levels of formality. Use may to ask permission.

May I smoke here?

No, but you may smoke outside.

You may not smoke inside. (formal) 

LESS FORMAL

Can is commonly used in speech to ask permission, especially in questions and negative sentences. See notes regarding formal and informal usage.

Can I smoke here?

No, but you can smoke outside.

You cannot smoke inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Requesting

Permission / Performance

Waiter
 

 

Requesting Permission

MORE FORMAL

Would, could, please + verb are used to request permission.

May I leave early?

Might I leave early? (excessively formal)

Would you mind if I left early?

Would you mind my leaving early?

I would like to ask you if I might leave early?  (formal!) 

LESS FORMAL

Can and other expressions are used informally in speech to request permission.

Can I leave early?

Is it a problem if I leave early?

We're leaving early, you don't mind, do you?

I need to leave, do you mind?

Is is OK if I leave early?

 

 

 

 

Request Performance

MORE FORMAL

Would, could, please + verb are used to request that someone do something.

Would you please smoke outside?

Could you smoke outside please?

Please use the outdoor smoking area.  (avoids using a personal pronoun)

Would you be so kind as to smoke outside?  (formal!)

LESS FORMAL

Will or can is used informally to ask someone to do something.

Will you smoke outside please?

Can you smoke outside please?

I'd like you to smoke outside please.   (would+like – Is used by a person of authority) 

Go outside to smoke.  (order) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Requesting

Suggestion / Invitation

 

 

 

Suggestion / Invitation

MORE FORMAL

Shall or would you like are used to suggest or invite someone to do something.

Shall we go outside?

Would you like to go to a table outside?   (Would you like + NP or infinitive)

Let us pray.   (very formal, not commonly used) 

LESS FORMAL

Let's, why don't we or how about are used to suggest or invite someone to do something in a less formal situation.

Why don't we go outside?

How about going outside? (very informal)

Let's go outside?  

 

 

 

 

Let's — lexical verb vs. quasi-modal

LET — "ALLOW"

Let is a regular verb when it occurs with the meaning "allow".  Let is followed by a "bare infinitive" (plain form verb).  She let us (to) go.

HAS A MEANING, TENSE, AND NUMBER

She lets him go out at night. (present) 
She let him go out last night. (past)

NEGATION —NEGATES AUXILIARY DO WITH NOT

She doesn't let us go out at night.  (negates auxiliary do with not)

INVERSION — INVERTS AUXILIARY DO IN QUESTIONS

Does she let us go out at night? 

SHORT ANSWER — INCLUDES "DO"

Yes, she does.  No, she doesn't.

INCLUDES AUXILIARY DO IN "AND…TOO" EXPRESSIONS

She lets us go out at night, and he does too.  (includes auxiliary do in "too" expressions)

EMPHASIS –  INCLUDES AUXILIARY DO IN EMPHASIS

Everyone says she doesn't let us go out, but she does.

LET'S — "SUGGESTION"

Let is irregular when it occurs with the meaning of suggestion or imperative; it has modal-like properties. See comparison below. (Let's is common in speech. Let us is very formal.)

MODAL-LIKE MEANING AND TENSE, 1ST PERSON PLURAL

Let's go! (present) /
Let's go out tonight. (future) 

NEGATION —NEGATES WITH NOT

Let's not go out tonight   

INVERSION — HAS NO DO SUPPORT IN QUESTIONS

Let's go out tonight?  *Do let's go out tonight? (Shall we go out tonight?)

SHORT ANSWER — HAS NO DO SUPPORT

Yes, let's. / No, let's not. — *Yes, let's do . / *No, let's don't. (non-standard )

(not a true modal)

*Let's go out tonight, and you [do/ lets] too. (?)
We may go out tonight, and you may too. (a true modal)

 

(no equivalent)    

 

lexical verb – a verb that has a dictionary meaning, is marked for tense and number (3rd person).   See Modals –Properties.
quasi – resembling, seeming, having some of the features; from Latin "as if"

(Burchfield Let. 3  453) (Garner  *Let's don't. 509)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

 

Error and Solution

ERROR

*May I can smoke here?

You don't can leave early.

You can not leave early.

He mays smoke outside.

 

Can you let's go now?  (urging someone to hurry)

SOLUTION

May I smoke here?  (Use one modal not two.)
Can I smoke here?

You can't leave early.  (A modal does not use the "do" auxiliary..)

You cannot leave early (Write cannot as one word.)

He may smoke outside. (A modal is not marked for 3rd person.)

Let's go now?  Shall we go now?  Shall we get going? Could you hurry, please?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Notes

Traditional Grammar and Linguistic Description

Advanced

 

 

 

What grammarians have to say about using can for permission

FOWLER / AZAR MERRIAM-WEBSTER / SWAN

can. (3) permission: In informal circumstances, since the second half of the 19c., can has often been used in contexts of permission where may had earlier been obligatory: Can I speak with the Count? – Tennyson… But in any context where politeness or formality are overriding considerations, may is the better word. May I come and stay with you? (Burchfield 10-10)

can, may 1. The use of can in a direct question to request permission is basically an oral use.  (Several examples are given for speech.)

Conclusion: The uses of can which request permission are seldom found in edited prose.  In general, this use of can belongs in speech, reported or fictional.  In negative statements, cannot and can't are much more frequently used than may not and mayn't; use in negative contexts is seldom notice or criticized. (Merriam-Webster 218)

9-2 POLITE REQUESTS WITH "I" AS THE SUBJECT May and could I are used to request permission. They are equally polite. Can I is used informally to request permission, especially if the speaker is talking to someone s/he knows fairly well.  Can I is usually considered a little less polite than may I or could I. (Azar 152)

 

345. 1. permission: can / could more common Can and could are more common than may and might, which are used in a formal style. Compare: Can I look at your paper. Excuse me, may I look at your newspaper for a moment?  There is an old belief that may/might are more 'correct' than can/could in this case, but this does not reflect normal usage. (Swan 345.1)

(Biber 491-2)

 

 

Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 1

Restating a Request

mailbox
 

 

What is the level of formality?

  1. Select your response—formal or informal.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" or "check 1-6" button.

 

1.
Mail these letters.

       

2.
Would you please mail these letters for me?

       

3.
Could you mail these letters?

       

4.
Can you mail these letters?

       

5.
Do you think you could mail these letters?

       

6.
Would you be so kind as to mail these letters?

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

TV Night

watching TV
 

 

Complete the sentence with a request or suggestion.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" or "check 7-12" button.

 

7.

8.

9.
  (informal request)

10.

11.
I can't find which channel it is on.

12.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 3

Scheduling Vacation Time

office talk
 

 

Read the Context

In the conversation below, Alice Ames, Dan Dole, and Rita Ross are speaking informally, which is acceptable in some office environments.  However, in other office environments, employees are required to be more formal, especially in workplaces where employees interact with clients and customers.

ALICE: Hey, Dan. Can I talk to you?

DAN: Sure. Come on in and have a seat.

ALICE: Do you mind if I take my two-week vacation at the end of May?

DAN: The end of May is busy for us. Can you take it the first two weeks of May?

ALICE: My cousin is getting married on May 21. I don't think I can ask her to change it.

DAN: Oh, I see. Of course not. Let me ask Rita if she can step in for you.

DAN: Rita, can you come to my office.

RITA: One moment. I'm talking with a customer.

DAN: (later) Rita, can you cover for Alice the last two weeks in May?

RITA: Yeah, I think so. Can I talk to my babysitter first? I'll need to arrange childcare.

DAN: OK. Why don't you get back to me tomorrow with your answer.

RITA: I'll let you know as soon as I can.

DAN: Thanks.

client – someone who gets services or advice from a professional person, company, or organization

colloquial speech –  language or words that are colloquial are used mainly in informal conversations rather than in writing or formal speech

cover for – do the work of someone else

customer – someone who buys goods or services from a shop, company

employees – workers

get back to someone – respond to someone; answer

step in for – take the place (job) of someone else

 

 

 

 

Change the conversation to more formal usage:

  1. Edit the sentence(s) in the text box.
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" or "check 13-24" button.

 

13.
ALICE AMES: Hey, Dan. May I talk to you?


14.
DAN DOLE: Sure. Come on in and have a seat.


15.
ALICE AMES: Do you mind if I take my two-week vacation at the end of May?


16.
DAN DOLE: The end of May is rather busy for us. Can you take it the first two weeks of May?


17.
ALICE AMES: My cousin is getting married on May 21. I don't think I can ask her to change it.


18.
DAN DOLE:Oh, I see. Of course not. I'll ask Rita if she can step in for you.


19.
DAN DOLE: Rita, can you come to my office.


20.
RITA ROSS: One moment. I'm talking with a customer.


21.
DAN DOLE: (later) Rita, can you cover for Alice the last two weeks in May?


22.
RITA ROSS: Yeah, I think so. Can I talk my babysitter first? I'll need to arrange childcare.


23.
DAN DOLE: OK. Why don't you get back to me tomorrow with your answer.


24.
RITA ROSS: I'll let you know as soon as I can.