On a previous post, I had written about the very basics of when to use “may” and when to use “might”. Today, let’s talk about when it is correct to say “May” and “Can”.

In school, one of the most common mistakes made was when people raised their hands to say “Miss, can I go to the toilet?” Our teachers would simply nod or shake their heads and never tell the girls about the mistake.

But then one day, a teacher did. She said, “You can, but you may not.” Do you get what the mistake was then?

Can is used when there is the question of ability involved. Can I go to the toilet? Of course I can go to the toilet. I have two legs and I know the direction where the toilet is, so I can go to the toilet. The camel can go without water for days because it has that hump where it can store water and all that, so it has the ability to skip drinking water unlike you and I. We cannot go without water because we do not function like that.

On the other hand, May is used when there is the question of permission involved. I have to ask the teacher if I may excuse myself to go to the toilet. I have to ask my father if I may take the newspaper from him. My child has to ask me if he may skip his homework today. In all these examples, my child and I are able to do all of these things, so we can do all that, but we seek permission to do these, so it is a question of whether or not we may do these things.

May also involves chance. There may be a chance of rain today. A crocodile may live up to be a hundred. See, there is a chance that the crocodile may die when it is fifty, but there is also a chance that it lives to be a hundred. There is a chance that it may rain, but there is also a chance that it may not rain. In this case, the question of ability does not arise. It is not in the hands of the crocodile to decide that it will live a hundred years, but there is chance that it will. Hence it may live a hundred years.

So may I assume that you can differentiate between the two now and say the correct thing the next time? If you still have questions, put them in the comment section and I’ll try to answer them as best as I can.