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    #1

    English usage

    Which is the correct form of English usage? ' May I call you later ' or ' Can I call you later '.

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    #2

    Re: English usage

    They both can be correct, but "May" is more likely to be correct. "May" asks for permission or agreement. "Can" refers to actual ability to do contact you. (For example, maybe you will be unreachable later.)

    Finally, native speakers usually say "Can" when they really should say "May". Sorry for the confusion; this is another example of native speakers breaking the rules of correct English.


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    #3

    Re: English usage

    Quote Originally Posted by 2006 View Post
    They both can be correct, but "May" is more likely to be correct. "May" asks for permission or agreement. "Can" refers to actual ability to do contact you. (For example, maybe you will be unreachable later.)

    Finally, native speakers usually say "Can" when they really should say "May". Sorry for the confusion; this is another example of native speakers breaking the rules of correct English.
    I find that I have have to disagree 2006. This is an old wives tale, an oft repeated one but one nonetheless.

    'can' can of course have the meaning you've indicated, but it is also used to ask permission. In fact, according to studies of actual English usage, 'may' is rarely used;

    "Despite a well-known prescription favoring may rather than can for expressing permission, may is especially rare in the sense of permission." [Longman Grammar of Spoken & Written English; page 493]

    +++++++++++++++

    M-W:

    Main Entry: 1can
    Pronunciation: k&n, 'kan also 'ken; dialect 'kin
    Function: verb

    2 : have permission to -- used interchangeably with may <you can go now if you like>
    usage Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts.

    Definition of can - Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

    +++++++++++++++++++

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    #4

    Re: English usage

    I have noted both replies which provide contradictory answers.In actual usage I have noticed ' can I ' more often than 'may I ' in the context of my query. My guess is use of can to ask or grant permission could be right.I am open to more views on this subject.

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    #5

    Re: English usage

    Arunp, one thing is sure - you will always sound more polite asking May I...? for permission (due to the fact it is so rarely used nowadays, I guess!).

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    #6

    Re: English usage

    Quote Originally Posted by engee30 View Post
    Arunp, one thing is sure - you will always sound more polite asking May I...? for permission (due to the fact it is so rarely used nowadays, I guess!).
    I am getting the impression, better to use 'may I ' to be on the safer side....

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    #7

    Re: English usage

    Quote Originally Posted by arunp View Post
    I am getting the impression, better to use 'may I ' to be on the safer side....
    arunp, I wasn't able to find the contradictions that you found.

    The information given by 2006 and riverkid is accurate. Language can be like that, you know, full of contraditions, or rather can appear that way:

    Asking for Permission
    Formal: May I?
    Informal: Can I?

    On an exam question, formal language is generally expected, which is why our member 2006 said that may is 'more likely to be correct', and my 18 years of teaching experience in 4 countries has me agreeing with 2006 on the formality of may v. can.

    You see, the problem here isn't which modal is correct. It's the term correct: according to who(m) is modal may correct and modal can incorrect? That is, are you asking us about English taught in the schools or everyday English? There is a difference.

    By the way, a dictionary is a great source, but before accepting what it has to offer, you should at least find out who wrote the book. Dictionaries are, after all, just books. They have authors and those authors have nationalities--what dailect of English does, say, Merriam-Webster advocate? Knowing that might reduce the apparent contraditions you come across in the future. Aside from the kinds of English taught in the schools and at home, there is also this to condent with: there is more than one dialect of English.

    In short, if you are asking about the English they teach in schools, especially schools in Asia--we get a great deal of students asking questions about formal and informal language--then may is formal, can is informal. Please note, however, can isn't slang or ungrammatical; it's just not what is expected on an exam question. In everyday speech, Can I? is perfectly good English.

    If you'd like speaker input on this, here's the way I use may and can:

    To an authority figure: May I?
    To a non-authority figure: Can I?

    In formal situations, to humble myself: May I?
    In informal situatons, to make us equal: Can I?

    To my students, in class: May I?
    To my students, outside of class: Can I?

    I use both; they hear both. Knowledge is power, right?


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    #8

    Re: English usage

    Quote Originally Posted by arunp View Post
    Which is the correct form of English usage? ' May I call you later ' or ' Can I call you later '.
    I agree with Casiopea. In informal speech or writing, can/may are interchangeable. But, from what I can tell, the consensus of usage commentators is that careful communicators still observe the can/may distinction.


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    #9

    Re: English usage

    Quote Originally Posted by river View Post
    I agree with Casiopea. In informal speech or writing, can/may are interchangeable. But, from what I can tell, the consensus of usage commentators is that careful communicators still observe the can/may distinction.
    I agree with Casiopea too, River, in most respects anyway [exception noted below] but the consensus of "usage commentators" is based on a false premise and as such is not an accurate reflection of language. In other words, the distinction being made, [and sadly still being taught to native children] that 'can' only means 'ability', is an inaccurate representation of the English language.

    Quote Originally Posted by CASIOPEA
    On an exam question, formal language is generally expected, which is why our member 2006 said that may is 'more likely to be correct', and my 18 years of teaching experience in 4 countries has me agreeing with 2006 on the formality of may v. can.
    Here is where I disagree with Casiopea. It's inaccurate, to my mind, to make the assumption that 'formal' would determine just what or what is not expected on an exam. Of course, on many exams, prescriptive answers are expected but that hardly makes them 'correct'. In point of fact, it's highly likely, almost certain in fact, that a prescriptive answer is wrong.
    Last edited by riverkid; 02-Sep-2007 at 20:44.

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    #10

    Re: English usage

    riverkid
    Are you saying that, on an exam, you would choose "Can I call you later?" as the correct answer?

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