May I help?

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While jet lagged and unable to sleep in Bangkok, I started watching an early morning English lesson on television as it was the only programme that I could understand, other than the news channels, which were just rerunning stories I had already seen several times. The lesson was about offering and asking for help. The general standard of English was excellent, but they had one scene in an office where someone came in and the receptionist asked 'May I help?'. They replayed the scene and asked 'Can I help?'. The latter seems the natural question, but the former doesn't work for me. I asked a friend and she told me that they were taught 'May I help?' as a standard phrase. Though 'may' is often considered more polite than 'can', I cannot see the need to ask for permission to help in this situation, as it is the natural role of the receptionist.

Categories: General


When do we use "may I", and when, "can I"? In your example, it appears that "may I" doesn't work for you because the receptionnist was doing her job. Is "may I" on the way out? I would use it for delicate situations, such as "May I come in?" as gentle permission to enter an ill person's room, or to ask a delicate question where I am unsure of the answer, such as, "May I write to you?"
To use "may" is a way of guaging the temperature of a situation, and its delicacy, your wish not to possibly offend.
However, if it's overused, even in this manner you could come across as being a bit weak and havering. Many people are coltish about people seeing/reading their paintings or their poems, but why balk at saying, "Can I read them"? Or, "I'd love to read/see them."?
If your partner has stormed into the next room to have a bit of a sulk, and you're getting fed up, it's quite all right to say, "Look, can I come in?" Of course, if it's "your fault" (ha, ha), then you might be sheepish and use ,"May I"? (lol)
But in conclusion I'd tend now to veer towards the "can I" since it's generally stronger, more affirmative, confident, and you're not doing anyone any favours by pandering to their over-sensitive natures.

I was taught that "Can I help you?" is asking, am I capable of helping you. Ie. asking somebody "Can I help you?" is asking if you are capable of helping. "May I help you?" is the proper way to ask if that person wants help.

That is the way I was taught.


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