Can versus May

What is the Difference Between Can and May?


When to Use Can

Can is an auxiliary verb (sometimes called a helping verb or a modal verb) and is used to denote physical or mental ability. It derives from the Old English cunnan, which means, “to be able.”

  • Can you do the salsa?
  • Can you play basketball?

    When to Use May

    May is also an auxiliary verb and is used to denote possibility or permission.

  • There may be a storm tomorrow. (Possibility)
  • I may attend the festivities this weekend. (Possibility)

    Summary

    Even if you rarely make the distinction between these words, it’s important to know the difference between may vs. can.

    May is used to express possibility or ask permission.

    Can is used to express ability and informally used to ask permission.

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