Can I vs May I vs Could I?

Can I or May I? Which should we use?Stuart Cook9 years agoWhen we ask for, give, and refuse permission, the words we most often use are can and cant:Can I speak to Dave Williams, p

Can I vs May I vs Could I?

Can I or May I? Which should we use?Stuart Cook9 years ago

When we ask for, give, and refuse permission, the words we most often use are can and cant:

  • Can I speak to Dave Williams, please?
  • You can help yourselves to tea and coffee.
  • Im sorry, youcantsmoke here.

Youve probably also heard may used in requests and when giving/refusing permission:

  • May I take a message?
  • Passengers may not leave the airport while waiting for a connecting flight.

So whats the difference between can and may in requests?

1. May is more formal than can when asking for and giving permission:

  • May I speak to Mr Jones, please?

2. We use may when we want to sound more polite:

  • May I offer you another drink, sir?

3. We see or hearmay, not can, in official announcements, and on signs:

  • Hotel guests may use the gym from 6 a.m.

May vs. can = formal vs. informal

Look at the difference between these two signs:

may vs can: formal / informal permission

Watch out! Although we very often shorten cannot tocant, the contraction maynt (may not) is rarely used nowadays. Stick with cant in spoken English when you refuse permission or say that something isnt allowed.

For more examples, seeGrammar rules: modal verbs for expressing permission, or take a look at this British Council page, which has some example sentences.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments below!Categories: Grammar articlesLeave a Comment

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