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    • Join Date: Oct 2008
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    #1

    May, Can

    Dear Teachers,

    Should the waitress say :
    May I clear the dishes? or
    Can I clear the dishes?
    What is the difference?

    How do you say when you want to make the bread hot?
    Do you want to toast your bread? or
    Do you want to heat up your bread?

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    #2

    Re: May, Can

    Should the waitress say :
    May I clear the dishes? (means Do I have your permission to remove the plates now?)

    or
    Can I clear the dishes? (Am I able to clear the plates now?)


    What do you say when you want to make the bread hot?
    Do you want to toast your bread? Yes

    Do you want to heat up your bread? (there is no way to "heat up" bread other then to toast it. But some restaurants might keep loaves of bread or rolls in steam pans)

  1. banderas's Avatar
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    #3

    Re: May, Can

    Susie is right but in reality, I noticed, it does not matter if you sue 'may' or 'can'. You still keep the meaning. Being more polite you would use 'may'.

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    #4

    Re: May, Can

    Oh, but it DOES matter which one you say. Look at these sentences which mean entirely different things:

    May I go to the bathroom?
    Can I go to the bathroom?

  2. Raymott's Avatar
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    #5

    Re: May, Can

    Quote Originally Posted by susiedqq View Post
    Oh, but it DOES matter which one you say. Look at these sentences which mean entirely different things:

    May I go to the bathroom?
    Can I go to the bathroom?
    Both of these would normally meet with the same response where I come from - permission to go to the "bathroom".
    In primary school, such permission might be preceded by "Say 'May I'"

  3. stuartnz's Avatar
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    #6

    Re: May, Can

    I'm not a professional teacher, but I was partly raised by a grandmother who was a huge stickler for the "may/can" distinction. If I asked "Can I have some chocolate?" she would often reply, "you can, but you may not."

    The reality is that the distinction is fading, and fast. As Raymott pointed out, usage is shifting and the distinction is going the way of that between "uninterested" and "disinterested". In the same way that "nice" once meant "ignorant" and now means very little, so the rigid immutable difference between "may" and "can" that was so beloved of previous generations is disappearing.

    I agree with bhaisahab that "may" sounds more polite when used in a question, but that may be because I grew up in the era of transition, when most adults still observed the distinction.

    Language Hat and Language Log two of my favourite language blogs, have both addressed this question in the past. Both blogs are written by professionals in the field of linguistics, so their view is much more descriptivist than the "thou shalt not" attitude displayed by my late grandmother and prescriptivists of today, but you may find it worthwhile to search those blogs and see what they have to say on the subject.

  4. stuartnz's Avatar
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    #7

    Re: May, Can

    Further to this question, here are some figures on the use of modals to express permission:

    An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb: Modal Verbs
    [1]May expresses possibility/high probability (97%) and permission (3%). The modals used to express permission are can (58%), may (16%), could (13%), and might (13%). [-3-]

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