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May is the earlier verb, showing up in manuscripts from the 8th century. It originally referred to having strength or power, and then very quickly developed a meaning that referred to ability. This particular meaning is no longer in current use, but we find a late representative of this use in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from 1395: “We mowen nat…It ouertake, it slit awey so faste” (“We may not overtake it, it slid away so fast”). May also developed a meaning referring to possibility, which we’re still familiar with today (“I may be able to have lunch with you this Thursday”), and the meaning that schoolteachers insist it has today–one that grants permission (“You may use the bathroom”). All four of these meanings were in use before 1000AD.

Here, ‘one’ in “one that grants permission” means ‘people in general’?

(If ‘one’ in “one that grants permission” means 'the meaninig', then it means that 'the meaning' grants permission. But, how on earth can 'the meaning' be a permittor?)

Around that time, can came on the scene. It was a verb that originally meant “to know,” and then “to know how to do something,” and then “to have the ability to do something.” This last meaning, which showed up around 1300, was can’s first semantic overlap with may. The overlap continued: by 1500, both can and may were used to refer to ability and possibility. Given that there was already some overlap between the two words, it’s not surprising that by the end of the 1800s, can also came to mean “to have permission.” (If there’s anything surprising in that, it’s perhaps that it took so long for can to copy that meaning of may’s.)

Here, “to copy that meaning of may’s” means “to copy the meaning of having permission from may’s one meaning of granting permission”? or “to copy that meaning of may’s” means “to copy the meaning of having permission among may’s different meanings"?

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    If you add a ">" character in front of quoted text, it will make it easier to understand what is quoted and what is your question. I think I've edited this right, but please check
    – James K
    Jul 13, 2023 at 20:59
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    Many thanks for your editing!!
    – gonju yi
    Jul 13, 2023 at 21:02
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    What is the source of these quotes? Please attribute them.
    – Laurel
    Jul 13, 2023 at 22:23
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    I think you misparse the text. "one that grants permission" doesn't refer to a granter of permissions. It specifically refers back to the [one] meaning [that schoolteachers insist it has today]. Jul 14, 2023 at 2:18

2 Answers 2

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"One" in "one that grants permission" means "A meaning".

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  • 1. If ‘one’ in “one that grants permission” means 'a meaninig', then it means that 'a meaning' grants permission. But, how on earth can 'a meaning' be a permittor? 2. Then, why not "that meaning of may" but "that meaning of may's"?
    – gonju yi
    Jul 13, 2023 at 21:47
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    In normal use of English, the meaning that grants permission is the same thing as the meaning which is defined as "granting permission" or "to grant permission". It's just shorter. Jul 14, 2023 at 2:24
  • FumbleFingers, O.K. I got it. Many thanks for your help. By the way, “to copy that meaning of may’s” means “to copy the meaning of having permission from may’s one meaning of granting permission”? or “to copy that meaning of may’s” means “to copy the meaning of having permission among may’s different meanings"? Please answer me this question also.
    – gonju yi
    Jul 14, 2023 at 2:50
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You ask 3 separate questions here:

  1. Who or what is "one" in the phrase "one that grants permission"?
  2. How can 'a meaning' be 'a permitter,' since a meaning is an abstract entity and not a person?
  3. What exactly is the word "can" copying from the word "may"?

To answer these questions, it might help to read this summary (below) of the passage you quoted from here:

BACKGROUND: Teachers of grammar often say you should only use 'may' (not 'can') to ask for permission, because the two words have different meanings. They would say that 'can' is only correct when referring to a person's actual ability to do something. For example, Can I have a cookie? would (according to them) mean Do I have the physical capability of eating a cookie? which of course is a nonsense question. Thus if you're asking for permission, you should only say May I have a cookie?

The passage you quote tries to REFUTE (that means argue for the opposite viewpoint or disprove) this, saying that:

The word 'may' predates the word 'can' - that means it came into use earlier in time. 'May' started out meaning something like "to be able" and only later gained the additional, alternate meaning of "to have permission." 'Can' came into use later than 'may,' and originally meant 'know,' then 'know how,' and finally, 'be able.' At this point in time, 'can' had evolved to have one of the same meanings as 'may.' ('May' at the time could still be used to refer to 'ability,' not just to permission.) So, it wasn't surprising that in a few more hundred years, 'can' also gained the meaning of 'having permission.'

The author is saying that the word 'can' evolved to take on first the earlier, then also the later meaning of the word 'may.' There was a point in time (the 1800s) where BOTH words had BOTH meanings. The author goes on to make the point that the difference in meaning between 'can' and 'may' at this point in time seems to be artificially imposed given the two words' histories: because they were interchangeable for such a long span of time in the recent past, it should still be OK to use EITHER word for the current meaning of "have permission" now, too!

  1. Answer: So, first of all, when we say the meaning of the word "may" is "one that grants permission," that just means that ONE possible meaning of the word "may" is "to have permission."
  2. Answer: This follows from the answer to your first question: it isn't that the meaning of the word grants you permission to do something (you're right, that would be nonsense!), but instead that the (new, at the time) meaning of the word 'may' is "to be granted permission."

FumbleFingers and James K have explained both these points very well already in their answer and comments. For your third question, the way this question is phrased isn't 100% clear, but I'll try to explain the concept in a way that's unambiguous here:

  1. Answer: 'Can' is a newer word than 'may,' and started out having a different meaning. First it acquired one of the same meanings as the preexisting word 'may' (to be able), then later it also gained the other meaning of 'may' (to have permission). 'Can' is described as "copying" 'may' because it gradually took on each new meaning in the same order as the word 'may' had originally acquired those two meanings.

So, the main outtake is that in questions where you're asking for permission to do something, "can" and "may" are or should be interchangeable (i.e. you should be able to use either one), like "Can/May I have a cookie?" According to the author's viewpoint, neither is wrong.

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  • @gonjuyi If you find this answers all your questions about the article you quoted from, you should vote to close your other 3 questions as duplicates of this one. Here is a discussion about having multiple copies of the same question: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/115330/… Jul 15, 2023 at 5:31

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