You may also send a resume to this email address.

What does this "may" mean?

Why isnt it can?


Two generations ago teachers insisted that only may should be used in asking or granting permission to do something, and that can signifies only ability to do something. Jolenealaska indicates that this was still common in the late 70s.

This in fact represented literary practice in the 19th century, and a primary object of schoolteachers has always been to encourage use of prestige forms—what used to be called ‘proper English’—and to stamp out non-standard forms.

Since the middle of the 19th century, however, may has been giving way to can in permissions, and it is my impression that schoolteachers have pretty much given up that particular fight. Nonetheless, the 'rule' still prevails in formal, written English; and there are lots of people out there (many in very senior positions) who I adhere to the rule.

I consequently recommend that you observe this distinction in any formal writing you undertake if you have any hope of becoming a Recognized Authority (at which point, of course, you may write anything you please). Failure to do so may result in bad marks while you are still a student, and afterwards may annoy any superiors of my age or Jolenealaska's—at least until we are all retired or dead.

The written dialect is always quite conservative, for a couple of reasons:

  • Very few people grow up in households where the written dialect is spoken, so it is essentially a foreign language which can only be mastered through reading. Consequently, during the years you are learning the dialect you are working entirely with texts older than you are yourself, or written by authors who are older; and by the time you master the language, and start publishing your own texts you are yourself older than many or most of your readers.
  • It is not only a much richer language lexically, it is a much more complex one syntactically, because it must express more complex ideas with more precision and writers have no opportunity to interrupt their discourses to explain what readers have not understood. It has many more 'rules' to ensure that what you say is what you mean and cannot be understood to mean something else. It is consequently averse to innovation, because innovation means changing the rules, and changing the rules means changing the meaning of the existing texts which are the language.
  • +1 purely for few people grow up in households where the written dialect is spoken. I'm sure the rest deserves an upvote too, but I can only vote once per answer. Mar 17 '14 at 0:00
  • btw - have I just noticed one of those rare occasions where you could slip an entire grammar book between us, rather than the normal "thin cigarette paper"? In my vernacular I'd have to say "It has many more 'rules' to ensure that what you say is what you mean". I know technically speaking "insure" can be defended (on historical grounds, if nothing else). But it does rather stick out to me. Mar 17 '14 at 0:05
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    @FumbleFingers Oh, bah! I should know better. I can only plead that at least half of the two or three million words I've written over the last twenty years have been about the INsurance industry. It's muscle memory. Mar 17 '14 at 0:07
  • Hah! Actually, I expect it was partly because you were waxing lyrical about the "enhanced richness" of the (older) written dialect, and thus unconsciously slipped into it. (I think, but don't actually know, that insure = make sure of was more common a century or two ago than it is now.) Mar 17 '14 at 0:12

"Can" works just as well. "May" is perhaps a bit more polite. No matter, consider the words interchangeable.

As a small child, I remember raising my hand in class. "Can I go to the bathroom?"

"MAY you go to the bathroom?"

Oh, whatever you friggin troll. I would just rather not pee my pants.


'Can' implies having the ability to do something: "I can walk into a shop, put something in my pocket and walk out without paying."

"May" implies having permission to do something: "I may not walk into a shop..."

So you might ask "Can I email in my resume?" and receive the answer "You can, but no-one will look at it.". However, the words are often used interchangeably.

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