View Poll Results: Is 'may' more polite than 'can' when asking for permission?

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  • No

    2 15.38%
  • Yes

    11 84.62%
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  1. #1
    Tdol is online now Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default 'May' for permission

    I use them both, but use 'may' as the more polite form.

  2. #2
    Will Guest

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    I voted yes. 'May' implies that you want to do something, whereas 'can' implies that you aren't sure if you're able to do it.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by Will
    I voted yes. 'May' implies that you want to do something, whereas 'can' implies that you aren't sure if you're able to do it.
    In modern usage 'can', in the example 'Can I help you?' isn't asking if I have the ability to help, instead it's asking 'How am I able to help'. Some very old fashioned teachers will probably object to this definition, but if you listen to the average Joe, that's how you'll hear him speaking.

    I'd say that 'may' is more formal, and old fashioned and thus more polite.

    Iain

  4. #4
    Tdol is online now Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default

    I use 'may' to be more polite. I think the old distinction is meaningless nowadays.

  5. #5
    Will Guest

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    What I meant was that when asking to do something 'may' seems more polite. Though, with the example Shane gave, one could come back, if they were in an especially snippy mood, with "I don't know; can you?" And that can only be bad. But I think 'may' is always more polite than 'can'.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Will
    Though, with the example Shane gave, one could come back, if they were in an especially snippy mood, with "I don't know; can you?" And that can only be bad.
    As a sidenote and going against my previous post... I read "Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus". The author raises a good point concerning the expression "Could you...". He points out that this might cause upset in a relationship because of its perceived connection to ability. Instead the author suggests couples use the expression "Would you ...".

    Grammar is a difficult ship to steer. :)
    Iain

  7. #7
    Will Guest

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    Grammar is a difficult ship to steer. :)
    That it is. :wink:

  8. #8
    Tdol is online now Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    And language tricky waters.

  9. #9
    CitySpeak Guest

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    Quote Originally Posted by Will
    I voted yes. 'May' implies that you want to do something, whereas 'can' implies that you aren't sure if you're able to do it.

    There is nothing wrong with using "can" to ask permission to do something. It would be obvious enough given the context what is meant by "can".

    "Can I use your bathroom?"

    "Can I have a glass of water?"

    "Can I use your telephone?"


    Surely, you would not think that the speaker that asks these questions is unsure that he or she is able to actually "use your bathroom", "have a glass of water", or "use your telephone". I don't know. Maybe you'd misunderstand those questions? I don't think anyone else would.

    There is nothing wrong with using "can" for permission or a request. "Can" is used for ability, to make a suggestion, to request something and to ask a permission.

    One can use "may" for a request or permission if one so desires.

    We can also use the negative form of "can" to emphasize that we think something is not so or that we are very surprised about something that is so.

    "It can't be snowing again!"

    "This can't be chicken! It has to be turkey."



    :D :D :D

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by CitySpeak
    There is nothing wrong with using "can" for permission or a request. "Can" is used for ability, to make a suggestion, to request something and to ask a permission.
    I agree. I would say that in fact can is used far more often than may for asking permission, especially in informal (most) situations. There are, of course, some situations in which may is more appropriate.

    :)

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