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I have noticed the tendency of replacing “may I” with “can I” in the spoken English and in some movies.

However, in formal spoken or writing or on serious TV channels the usage is correct.

Is there any particular reason, or some nuances which I possibly cannot get, that make people to use “can I” instead of “may I”?

On the other hand, sometimes, the usage of “can I” instead of “may I” leaves room for jokes such as:

“Can I get you a drink”?

“I don’t know, can you”?

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    This is not historically accurate. May is considered prescriptively better by some, but can has been used this way for centuries.
    – user230
    Mar 30 '14 at 10:13
  • I didn’t know, I thought it was a nowadays tendency, thank you. Mar 31 '14 at 8:05
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    Thank you for all your answers, very useful indeed. It’s too bad that I have to accept only one. I wish I could accept them all. At least I can up vote them all. Mar 31 '14 at 8:08
  • Indeed they all are good. I just KISS (kept it short and simple!). Thanks for accepting. Just take care that don't consider that as a concrete rule but yes, in most of the cases, it'd work.
    – Maulik V
    Mar 31 '14 at 8:13
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This has happened with me many times. It's really fun that way. What I learned as a non native is prefer may when it is a request or politely asking something or even telling. Use can if it's more about the capability of someone or something. Also however how natives look it, it's completely their take.

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(Speaking only for America): there is no nuance; in the spoken language, "may I" is not used much at all.

The exception is that typically some teacher will harp on this for a few months. Every American student has had the following exchange with a teacher.

Student: Can I go to the bathroom?

Teacher: I don't know, can you?

So everyone learns this made up "rule" in school, that you're supposed to use "may I."

But unlike other made up rules, I don't think this rubs off on the spoken language of anyone. Some will find "may I" a little pretentious. I would save "may I" for formal writing or very formal speech with strangers (e.g. job interviews-- you should still use "can I" when you, say, ask an employee in a store for something).

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May I and Can I have very different meanings, as brought home by your joke reference.

In British English, it is uncommon to use can I in place of may I but it does happen in spoken conversation. There is no particular reason for it, the spoken word is not always grammatically or semantically perfect.

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  • Upvoted since it's good to get the British perspective on it also. Mar 30 '14 at 11:26

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