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Can is used to talk about permission that has already been given or refused, and about things that are allowed by rules or laws. May is not notmally used in this way.

(from Practical English Usage 4th ed. by Michael Swan)

Can "Do we have his general permission (which has already been given) to smoke in his garden?" be paraphrased to "May we smoke in his garden?"? (Here, "general permission" means the permission to do something at any time .)

From P.E.U, I know "Do we have his general permission (which has already been given) to smoke in his garden?" can be paraphrased to "Can we smoke in his garden?".

Can "Do we have your general permission (which has already been given) to smoke in your garden?" be paraphrased to "May we smoke in your garden?"? (Here, "general permission" means the permission to do something at any time .)

From P.E.U, I know "Do we have your general permission (which has already been given) to smoke in your garden?" can be paraphrased to "Can we smoke in your garden?".

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  • You would only ask someone "May we smoke in your garden?" if permission had not already been given to you. If it had, there would be no need to ask! Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 18:03
  • @KateBunting Well, not necessarily. You might want to clarify that that permission applies to you, or applies at this particular time or in these circumstances. In some cases you might ask just out of politeness. Sure, if I was pushing the limits of the rules, or if I knew that the person in charge didn't want to allow me to do X, but it says in the official rule book that I can, than I wouldn't ask because that would just give him the opportunity to say no. But if, say, my neighbor said, "You can use my pool any time you like", I might ask again out of politeness.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 18:34
  • @Jay - The point I was trying to make is that Michael Swan's reference to 'permission that has already been given' is about can I do X? meaning is it against the rules or not? rather than directly requesting permission. Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 18:44

2 Answers 2

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Both 'can' and 'may' are used to ask for permission and to grant or deny it:

  • Can I?
  • May I?
  • You can.
  • You may.
  • You cannot.
  • You may not.

One way these words differ is in secondary meanings. "I can" is used to refer to your own ability (eg "I can play the piano") or permission granted to you (eg "I can borrow my dad's car". However, "I may" can be used to mean you might do something (eg "I may go to the gym tomorrow").

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  • Hi! I upvoted your answer!In the first sentence you got confused and you wrote two times the word 'used'. Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 10:31
  • Hi. I have a problem. Nobody answered my question. I will be happy if you answer it. I want to know your opinion! Thank you very much! Follow this link to see my question. [1]:ell.stackexchange.com/questions/340464/… Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 11:23
  • @MariosAthanasiou You haven't accepted an answer here yet.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 16:26
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When I was in school, English teachers would often make a big deal that "may" refers to permission while "can" refers to ability. A game they loved to play was that a student would ask, "Can I go to the bathroom?", and the teacher would reply, "I don't know. Can you? Oh, you mean MAY I go to the bathroom ..."

But among actual English speakers, including the most literate and fluent, "can" can refer to either ability or permission. "May" only refers to permission.

So you might say, "Jack can run a mile in 3 minutes", meaning he has the ability to do this. "You may take two pieces of cake" means you have permission to take two pieces of cake. By the pedantic English teacher's definitions, "You can take two pieces of cake" means that you are physically capable of doing it -- you are strong enough to lift two pieces, perhaps. But in real life, this would be understood to mean that you have permission.

So to directly answer your question: There is no difference in which word we use whether it is general permission or specific permission. If someone says, "You may use the park to play basketball" or "You can use the park ...", either way, it is not clear if that means "I give you special permission this one time" or "anyone has permission to use the park to play basketball at any time". You would have to use additional words if you wanted to specify which you meant.

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  • 2
    Don't you mean "May" only refers to permission? Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 18:37
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    "'May' only refers to ability." May NEVER refers to ability, and sometimes refers to possibility.
    – Edward
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 19:07
  • @KateBunting Yes, I meant to say permission. Thanks. Fixed.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 19:18
  • @Edward RE ability: Yes, brain freeze, fixed. RE possibility: Yes, good point that I did not bring up.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 19:18

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