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I'm struggling a bit with the meaning of "may".

Does "You may eat that apple." mean any of these?:

  • "You are able to eat that apple."
  • "You are allowed to eat that apple."
  • "I want you to eat that apple."

I think it's probably the middle one but I'm not quite sure. Same for the negative version of the above-mentioned sentence.

Does "You may not eat that apple." mean any of these?:

  • "You are unable to eat that apple."
  • "You aren't allowed to eat that apple."
  • "Whether you eat that apple, is up to you."
  • "I want you to eat that apple but you don't have to do it."
  • "I wish you won't eat that apple."
  • "I'd prefer if you won't eat that apple but you are able to and allowed to if you want to." (Side note: Is that sentence grammatically correct?)

If none of the proposed meanings quite cut it, please let me know what would.

  • You're right. "May" has to do with asking for and giving permission to do something. – Mick Oct 23 '16 at 18:59
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May can express permission or authority, and conditionality (in the present perfect) or potentiality.

We use the modal may to talk about the possibility of doing something, or about permission to do something.

In your sentence You may eat that apple, depending on context, may could convey either of these meanings:

  • It is possible that you will eat that apple. (Potentiality)
  • You are allowed to eat that apple. (Permission)

In the negative form You may not eat that apple, (depending again on context) may not could convey one of the following meanings:

  • You are not allowed to eat that apple. (Permission)
  • It is possible that you will not eat that apple. (Potentiality)
  • By the way, another answer suggests that can might be understood in place of may, but that is not so when the intention is to express potentiality. If you need to express that the apple's fate is unknown, You may eat that apple does a good job. You can eat that apple tells us only that the "you" is capable of eating that apple. It tells us nothing about the probability of that apple's being eaten. The distinction between can and may is valuable, informative, and sometimes critical to meaning. Compare: Can he swim? and May he swim? – P. E. Dant Oct 24 '16 at 0:10
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may

is about permission

can

is about ability

You can eat an apple, but you may not.
you are able to eat an apple, but you are not allowed to eat an apple

Your sentence

I'd prefer if you didn't eat that apple but you are able to and allowed to if you want to.

is correct and understandable.

  • I originally wrote it with "didn't" (intuition) but changed it to "won't". Wouldn't the sentence written in the way you wrote it imply that the apple has already been eaten? (The second part of the sentence would of course be inconsistent with this since it says "you are", not "you were".) || So in the positive form, "You are allowed to eat that apple." would be the correct choice, wouldn't it? – UTF-8 Oct 23 '16 at 19:05
  • @UTF-8 If "the apple has already been eaten", you would say "I'd prefer you hadn't eaten that apple". "I'd prefer if you didn't" is somewhat ambiguous regarding whether or not the event has occurred, depending on context and can be used in either case. "I'd prefer you don't eat that apple" is clearest. – HighTechGeek Oct 23 '16 at 20:13
  • @HighTechGeek Thanks. What about the positive form? – UTF-8 Oct 23 '16 at 20:26
  • "I'd prefer if you ate that apple because you are able to and allowed to if you want to" would be the positive. – Peter Oct 23 '16 at 20:53
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In US English, speakers often mix up "can" and "may". Using "may" is proper, but many speakers say "can". My aunt would constantly correct people that used "can" incorrectly, but she was the grammar police.

In my experience, most people would say "You can eat the apple." (giving permission) or "Can I eat the apple?" (asking permission) even though it's technically incorrect. The proper way to say it is "You may eat the apple." and "May I eat the apple?", but, again, most people I've encountered use "can". Using "may" in conversation can sometimes appear very formal.

You might hear parents say "may" when they are talking to a child (in an effort to teach them the correct usage).

When someone says "Can I eat the apple?" a sarcastic person may retort "I don't know. Can you?". However, I find this to be rare and obnoxious.

  • So that's the 2nd option for the positive form, am I right? I'm still clueless which of the negative options is correct, though (if any). – UTF-8 Oct 23 '16 at 20:48
  • "Instructing" folks in everyday speech about the proper use of can and may is obnoxious, but it's not true that merely using the two verbs correctly will make anyone think the speaker is "elitist" or even "formal". New learners of English should certainly not badger anyone about can vs may, but it's an arrant falsehood to say that merely using the verbs correctly will make them seem "elitist" or "formal" or anything but well educated. (We'll leave aside the "most people" and "usually" thing except to suggest that "most people I speak with" and "sometimes" might be less doctrinaire.) – P. E. Dant Oct 23 '16 at 23:41
  • Good edit as far as it goes, but perhaps your Aunt, rather than aspiring to a career in law enforcement, was merely interested in helping her nephew present himself as an educated person. In other words, perhaps her concern was for you, not for herself. Have you considered this possibility? – P. E. Dant Oct 30 '16 at 22:07
  • Have you considered some pedants simply find joy in pointing out other's errors? Merriam-Webster defines "pedant" as "a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules". You should know, P.E.Dant – HighTechGeek Nov 7 '16 at 17:12

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