Ok, according to my study

We can only use "can" & "may" to give permission in present

Eg: I can / may wear jeans at work.= I have the permission to wear jeans at work.

I am not sure if I can say "I could wear jeans at work" to express the same meaning.

However, we can use "Can", "May" & "Could" to ask for permission.

Eg: Can / may / could I wear jeans at work?

But if someone asks "could I wear jeans at work?" & we answer "Yes, you could", then it breaks the law that we can not use "could" to give permission

Can we say "Yes, you could" when someone asks "Could I wear jeans at work?"?

  • This question as asked makes no sense at all. It cites a "rule" for which no citation is given. The cited "rule" is unclear: it is not true that, for example, "may" may be used only to give permission in the present. "I may go to the gym tomorrow" is a perfectly valid sentence, but it is not granting permission and concerns the future rather than the past. I suspect what is meant is that giving permission in the present requires "may" or "can." But the question involves haing permission, and thus the rule, whatever it may be, is not pertinent. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 11:23

1 Answer 1


Before addressing your questions specifically, let me digress briefly.

There have been lots of debates, here and elsewhere, on the use of may versus can.

While may is used in the sense of asking for permission, part of the problem with comparing it to can is that can has two different common senses.

Can I do this?

  1. Yes, you are allowed to do that.
  2. Yes, you are able to do that.

In the one sense, can is also about asking permission. But in the other sense, it's about determining the capability of doing something.

Now for your question:

Could I wear jeans to work?

Similarly to can, there is an ambiguous meaning—but it's slightly different.

No, I can't let you do that.
Yes, you could. But it's against the rules.
Sure, that's not a problem. Well, you could. But I'm not sure if you should.

Generally speaking, the final sense (one of recommendation or suggestion) isn't used with may or can—which are only about yes or no. But with could, questions and answers can have this additional nuance.

Also, we normally qualify the questions we ask when we use could:

Could I wear jeans to work if I wanted to?

This means you're implicitly saying that you're able to wear jeans to work but what you're really after is if it's permissible to do so or not.

Could I wear these skinny jeans to work if I went on a diet?

This means you're implicitly saying you have difficulty physically fitting into the jeans, and are asking not for permission but for the likelihood of changing that situation with certain behaviour.

 . . . it breaks the law that we can not use "could" to give permission . . .

There is no such "law" that I'm aware of, and there are certainly no guidelines of syntax or semantics against it.

"May I be allowed in?"
"No, you need to wait at the end of the line."
"What if I gave you fifty dollars? Could I be allowed in then?"
"Why, yes, you could be."

As I mention, could is less of a black-and-white word than may or can, but it still has those meanings as part of it—especially if questions are qualified in order to make one of those meanings more explicit.

Also, while may and can are used to express something about the present, could is used to express something about the future (or the past when it's used in the negative).

Update: It's true that in formal English, there is guidance against using the word could for giving permission. In a blog post, Oxford Dictionaries says that "when giving (or refusing) permission, only can (or can’t) and may (or may not) are acceptable."

But idiomatically, in informal conversation, I believe it is something that is used and taken to be meant as a way of expressing permission in the right context.

Consider the following sets of dialogue:

"Could I please take this pen?"
"Yes, you could."

"Could I please take this pen?"
"Yes, you may."

The second may be the formally correct way of expressing permission, but the first seems at least as natural an exchange—if not more so because people have a tendency when they repeat something back to somebody to repeat it back just as it was originally said rather than to change something.

  • There is no source saying "could" can be used to give permission. Do you have a reference link?
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 6:13
  • A problem with your last example is that no permission was promised. The scene might continue with "But I gave you fifty bucks and you said that I could be allowed in!". "Yeah, I said you could be. I didn't say you would be. Now, beat it!"
    – Mattias
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 11:43
  • @Mattias You're right. Could doesn't always mean would. But while I like making jokes out of that (as did Captain Kirk in at least one instance I can recall), most people normally do imply permission when they use that word. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 14:49
  • @tom A quick search provided me with no such reference. You are correct that in formal English could is not used to give permission. But I believe it's often used in informal (spoken) English for that purpose. I've updated my answer to mention this specifically. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 15:45
  • @JasonBassford, that is the link I need. "Could I borrow your pen?"==> "Yes, you could (borrow my pen)."==> "would imply that yes, if I had a pen, it would be possible for you to borrow it."
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 2:38

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