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In school I was taught that "may" is asked for permission, why "can" is used to ask if someone is able to do another thing. However, I did some research online, and on some dictionaries "can" can also be used to ask for permission or relate to if something is allowed or not.

ie. I can't go outside. My mother does not allow it.

In this case, from what I've been taught in school, this is technically incorrect as I'm actually able to go outside, but my mother is not allowing me to.

Thoughts?

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Julian Ng-Thow-HingThoughts?

The use of "may" to ask permission is very formal. "can" or "could" or an equivalent paraphrase is used instead of "may" to ask permission in almost all social contexts in modern English.

"may" is used in today's English mostly as a formal substitute for "might", which basically conveys the idea of "maybe", "perhaps".

Consequently, in ordinary, everyday conversational English, "may" is seldom used anymore. "can" (or "could") and "might" are used instead.


On the phone:
Formal: May I speak to Mrs. Belmont?
More commonly: Can I speak to Mrs. Belmont?

In conversation:
Formal: If you like to read, you should try this book. You may like it.
More commonly: If you like to read, you should try this book. You might like it.

CJ

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The rule may be that can refers to ability, while may refers to permission, but in everyday use can is generally used for both in all but the most formal writing.

Having said that, this morning my three-year-old granddaughter said "Mommy, I want a drink!", and I told her she should say, "Mommy, may I have a drink please?" (which she did).

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Comments  

So what you're saying is that because in everyday English that more people are tending to use can/can't instead of may/may not, dictionaries are adapting to it, and adding "to be allowed to" as a definition to "can"?

 Blue Jay's reply was promoted to an answer.
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Ok, so "can" can basically means may in all circumstances but super formal writing.

Julian Ng-Thow-Hing

So what you're saying is that because in everyday English that more people are tending to use can/can't instead of may/may not, dictionaries are adapting to it, and adding "to be allowed to" as a definition to "can"?

Yes. Dictionaries try to describe how language is used, so definitions may change, definitions may be added, definitions may be removed or marked "archaic". Of course, languages change slowly, so you would have to compare dictionary entries from at least 50 years apart to see the changes.

CJ

Okay, thanks!

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Julian Ng-Thow-Hing

Ok, so can basically means may in all circumstances but super formal writing.

I think you understand it. Yes.

However, it's better to say that a little differently. "can" doesn't mean "may" in all circumstancesbut formal writing because it has many more meanings that have nothing to do with asking or giving permission, and those are still used in English. Emotion: smile

CJ

Oops. I didn't see that BlueJay had added a post, and that this question was for him. Maybe in the future you can add a little quote from the post you're replying to before you compose your new post. (Highlight at least a few words at the beginning of the post you're answering and click on "Quote".)

CJ

However, it's better to say that a little differently. "can" doesn't mean "may" in all circumstances but formal writing because it has many more meanings that have nothing to do with asking or giving permission, and those are still used in English.

Yes, I changed the question to "can" can..... so I changed it to a possibility for it.

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