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Imagine this situation. I want to ask a question to a group of people. Should I say:

  1. Can you give me the information?

  2. May you give me the information?

Which is the best/correct one?

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4 Answers 4

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Can X refers to ability to do X.

May X refers to permission to do X.

Can you X is often used as a polite way to request X and as such as often used in place of May X.

Keep in mind that modals are often misused to communicate politeness or deference to authority. The actual meaning and intended meaning are often different with modals.

Also: may you (may + third person pronuns too) is not completely interchangeable with can you. May you strongly implies that the person you are talking to is under control of someone else and cannot act without permission. This could be a bad thing to imply in some situations, or sound really awkward when it's obvious that such control or permission does not exist.

May you come over to my house? (If you say this to a married adult male for example, it can sound like you think he can't do anything without his wife's permission. This may be the case, but typically not something you want to imply.)

Can you come over to my house? (Since can refers to ability, even if the person has an overbearing wife, we leave open the possibility for him to say he can't come over due to some other reason, such as broken car, etc.)

In your question you definitely want to use can.

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    I think your answer is more complete. Thank you for the explanation. Dec 27, 2017 at 15:47
  • Who would say May you come over to my house? Not anyone I know.
    – Lambie
    Feb 2, 2023 at 18:37
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#1 is correct.

You could say either of these interchangeably:

Can you give me the information?

or

May I have the information?

I don't know the technical reason why, but that's how it is.


Your question made me think of a correction I made to my son's grammar today. He said, "I put off my shirt."

I explained to him that we say:

I put on my shirt.

or

I take off my shirt.

We do not "put off clothing" or "take on clothing".

I also didn't have a reason why that one is correct! Sometimes English rules seem completely random!

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  • All the three answers were the same. Thank you for your answer. Dec 27, 2017 at 15:48
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"may" is typically only used in the first person. It's used to ask for permission. When "may" is used with second or third person it mostly expresses a wish or a desire - "May he live forever!".

In your sentence it's appropriate to use "can" or "could".

You could also rephrase it to "May I ask you to give me the information?"

You may find this question on ELU interesting - May you please explain this?.

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  • I did not know that ideia only use "May" in the first person. Thank you for you answer. Dec 27, 2017 at 15:46
  • @GonçaloBorges note that this also provides an example of its use in the third person.
    – Sam Hobbs
    Sep 18, 2018 at 17:07
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    I'd clarify that "may" is usually used only in the first person FOR QUESTIONS. "May I have another piece of cake?" You are asking permission. "May you have another piece of cake?" would be asking the other person whether they have permission, which is an unlikely thing to ask. You might ask a child if his parents will give him permission, or you might be asking someone if his diet allows it or if his doctor permits it. But in those cases we usually say, "Are you allowed ..." ...
    – Jay
    Oct 31, 2018 at 19:15
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    ... It is quite common to use "may" with the second person in declarative statements. "Yes, Billy, you may have another piece of cake."
    – Jay
    Oct 31, 2018 at 19:16
  • @Jay Yes, May I for the question. Yes, you may for the answer.
    – Lambie
    Feb 2, 2023 at 18:36
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It is extremely frustrating for me that the word "may" is used so frequently. It is ambiguous; it can have either one of two possible meanings. For example:

He may vote.

That can either mean that he might vote or that he can vote. Those are different. It would be better to say either that he can vote or that he might vote.

The meaning of "May you give me the information?" is probably the same as "Can you give me the information?" but could mean "Will you give me the information?".

The word "may" should be used much less than it is.

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