The Grammarphobia Blog

Captain, may I?

Q: I was brought up with a children’s game in which you had to say “Mother, may I” before you could move. I guess that dates me! Anyway, this is why I’m writing. My impression is that one uses “may” for permission and “can” for ability. But the State of Pennsylvania has signs that say “Bridge may be icy.” Do the bridges need permission to ice up? Or has the meaning of “may” changed?

A: In my day, we said, “Captain, may I?” So that dates me as well!

Anyway, the distinction between “can” and “may” is a bit more relaxed today than when you were playing that children’s game, but careful writers still observe it in formal writing or speech.

For example, the overwhelming majority of the usage panel at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) rejects the use of “can” in this sentence: “Can I take another week to submit the application?”

Traditionally, “can” means able to and “may” means permitted to. Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “I can fly when lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag,” said Sister Bertrille. “May I demonstrate?”

But grammarians and usage experts are willing to cut people some slack in casual usage. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, notes that “only an insufferable precisian would insist on observing the distinction in informal speech or writing.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if even the most stickling sticklers say “Can’t I help with that?” instead of the stilted “Mayn’t I help with that?” Or “You can’t come in yet” instead of “You mayn’t come in yet.”

However, the “may” in those Pennsylvania bridge signs is another animal altogether. This isn’t the “may” that indicates permissibility. It’s a “may” that indicates likelihood, a term similar to “might.” So “Bridge may be icy” means it’s possible that the bridge will ice up. An entirely different meaning of the word.

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