Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0: Can or May?


Every Wednesday, Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0 features handy tips to enhance all of our writing, from daily emails to articles to books. After all, everyone needs to write, right?

Do you remember being in elementary school and having to use the facilities? Making your way up to the teacher’s desk after waiting too long to begin with, crossing your legs in a futile attempt to stave off what could only be described as certain humiliation?

“Can I have the girls’ bathroom pass?”

The teacher looks up blankly at you. “I suppose you could.” And then goes back to grading papers without handing you anything.

You hop from foot to foot, pee pee dancing in utter disbelief.

The teacher sighs and puts down her red pen. “May I help you?”

Finally, the lightbulb goes on. “May I have the girls’ bathroom pass?”

“Yes, of course, dear.”

You rip the pass out of her hand and sprint down the hall.

It was an infuriating, but effective way to learn the difference between can and may.

A lot of people think can means am/is/are able, while may requests permission, such as in the following examples. 

I can write a sentence.

May I have some candy?

Pretty cut and dried, right? Not so fast.

Wait, hold on a sec...

Both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionaries state it's not improper to use can to ask permission. Merriam-Webster cites examples throughout history here

The Oxford reasoning states that "'permission' use of can is not in fact incorrect in standard English.The only difference between the two verbs is that one is more polite than the other. In informal contexts it’s perfectly acceptable to use can; in formal situations it would be better to use may."

So, basically, it's up to you, unless you're in a formal situation. Then use may

How formal is formal? 

If you're meeting the Queen, using may would be a good idea. Meeting your future in-laws? Maybe, if they are grammar geeks or word nerds. Asking your partner for a piece of the chocolate they're enjoying? Nah.

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These books are on my desk at all times. Maybe they'll help you as well.

The Associated Press Stylebook, 2017 edition
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition
Strunk and White's The Elements of Style
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition


A professional writer/editor for almost 30 years, Karen Wojcik Berner's wide and varied experience includes such topics as grammar, blog content, book reviews, corporate communications, the arts, paint and coatings, real estate, the fire service, writing and literature, research, and publishing. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women's Fiction Writers, Naperville magazine, and Fresh Fiction. She also is the author of the Bibliophiles series, contemporary fiction with a sprinkling of the classics, and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. For more information on Karen, please visit www.karenberner.com.


angel011 said…
And how formal is asking for permission to use the bathroom? :)

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