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Word comparisons

Note 109 – ‘Can’ v ‘May’

The Pocket Writer’s Handbook by Martin Mander & Stephen Curtis  explains that although the word ‘may’ is the traditional way of saying ‘be allowed to’ (when asking permission to do something) the word ‘can’ meaning ‘be able to’ is often used instead.  The difference is shown in the following examples:

  • “May I have a sweet?” (Am I allowed to have a sweet)
  • “They may use the school hall for the party” (They are allowed to use the school hall for the party)
  • “I can make cakes” (I am able to make cakes)
  • “I think she can do a handstand” (I think she is able to do a handstand)

The Grammar Monster website has a very simple way of remembering the difference which is:

“Use ‘may’ for permission.  Use ‘can’ for ability” 

The Grammar Monster online also suggests that you can use ‘can’ and ‘may’ for permission in informal situations (examples 1 and 2 below), but to always use ‘may’ in “formal settings or polite company” (as in example 3 below):

  1. Can I have a sweet please?  (Am I allowed to have a sweet please?)
  2. They can use the school hall for the party. (They are allowed to use the school hall for the party.)
  3. May I have this dance with you? (Am I permitted/allowed to have this dance with you?)

I hope you enjoyed today’s blog. Don’t forget that you can subscribe to receive my daily blogs by email so that you don’t miss any. Just click ‘sign me up’ on the home page. Alternatively you can follow my blogs on Twitter – @madeirasandra.

Until tomorrow…


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My website: (includes the introduction to my upcoming book ‘A Gift for Stressed and Busy Parents’)

Twitter: @madeirasandra and @tipsandluxuries

Reference list:

The Pocket Writer’s Handbook by Martin Mander & Stephen Curtis (Penguin Reference Library)

The Grammar Monster website


About Sandra Madeira

I am a full-time working mum with a passion for writing and inspiring others. Subjects I tend to blog about are life skills, parenting, decluttering, worklife balance, etc. At the moment I am on a decluttering mission creating space in my house, garden and mind. I have challenged myself to do at least ten minutes a day and write about it. Have a good day! Sandra Freelance Writer


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