Modal verbs – Can vs May

Before reading this article, make sure you are familiar with the uses of can and may. You will need that information to understand can vs may.

You may have heard someone say “Can I go to the bathroom.” You might have also heard “May I go to the bathroom”. Can we use both “can” and “may”? Do they mean the same thing here? What are the differences between Can vs may?

The answer to this is a bit more tricky than you might think. If you take a strict look at how to use “can” and “may”, you will see that “can” is for ability or opportunity while “may” is for permission. In this sense, they are not interchangeable.

“May I use the bathroom?” – Asking for permission to use the bathroom

“Can I use the bathroom?” – Do I have the ability or opportunity to use the bathroom?

But if there is a “strict view”, is there a “non-strict” view? The answer is yes. In fact, many native English speakers use “can” for permission as well. In films from Hollywood, for example, you might see a student as a teacher “Can I go to the bathroom?” This works the same way as “may I go to the bathroom?” is supposed to. This phenomenon has been around for a while and many native speakers do not know that they are asking the “wrong” thing using “can” when looking at the grammar rules.

So how am I supposed to know if they are asking for ability/opportunity or permission? Well, a lot of it is context. Is someone standing in front of you with their legs crossed in a cartoonish fashion? They are probably then asking for permission rather than they have the ability.

If you are reviewing the modal verbs because you are learning/studying for a test, I would highly recommend going for the strict grammar rules; these ones are the ones going to be tested, especially if you are taking international exams, such as IELTS, TOEFL or Cambridge.

Here is an image that might help:

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Are you in a colloquial setting? If not, assume strict grammar rules and the differences between can vs may. Otherwise, feel free to interchange them when talking to friends.

Want to learn more about modal verbs? You can find a guide to all the modal verbs here: introduction to modal verbs. You can also learn more about other English language information on my Learning English page.

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