The verb may implies two different meanings: possibile and allowable. According to this, there is an ambiguity of menings in many sentences turning around may.

For example:

May he come in?
1- Is it possible he come in?
2- Is he allowed to come in?

May he buy sweets?
3- Is it possible he buy sweets?
4- Is he allowed to buy sweets?

Is it actually true?

  • I see no ambiguity. For possible use can. "Can he come in?" Nov 27, 2021 at 18:45
  • May he come in? Does he have permission to enter? May he buys sweets? Does he have permission to buy sweets. He may come in.=Permission OR possibility.
    – Lambie
    Nov 27, 2021 at 19:02
  • What about: May he come in? = Probably he come in? Maybe he come in?? Perhaps he came in?? These sentences don't pointed on a permission.
    – xyz
    Nov 27, 2021 at 19:23
  • "May he come in?" asks "Is he allowed to come in?" Nov 27, 2021 at 20:08
  • But "He may come in. = Perhaps, he will come in.". Isn't?
    – xyz
    Nov 27, 2021 at 20:19

1 Answer 1


In the question form that you give, the only interpretation is "permission"

"May he come in" = "He is permitted to come in"

In a statement, there is ambiguity

"He may come in" = "He might come in" / "He is permitted to come in".

This is often resolved by context. For example there are boxes containing grit to put on the roads in icy weather. The boxes have a sign saying

Grit boxes may not be refilled.

What do you suppose that means? (A) "It is possible that the grit box is not refilled" or (B) "It is forbidden to refill the grit box." It is grammatically ambiguous, but in context the meaning is clear enough.

Answer: (A) but you can't deduce that from the grammar.

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