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https://stackoverflow.com/help/be-nice

Be welcoming and patient, especially with those who may not know everything you do.

I thought this 'may' is used to say that something is possible, like 'probably' or 'perhaps'.

But someone told me that 'may' has similar meaning as 'do' but it's softer than 'do'.

How do I tell the difference between those meaning?

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The "someone" may (=possibly) have missed to point out the context in which "may" is used as "do", but that has a lot more to do with culture than language:

In English phrases like "You may want to sit down." are a way of avoiding a direct commands like "Do sit down." which may (=possibly) come across as impolite.

The straight translation / literal meaning of "may" remains the same ("Perhaps you want to sit down?") but the underlying message is a straight request or order.

So how to distinguish between those? It's a question of context. Who is the speaker? What is the topic? Is there a request or demand in a friendly packaging? Or is the speaker simply expressing a possibility or probability? In the former case you can remove all "may" and all verbs like "want" or "consider" to get the core message.

  • It may start to rain soon. -> possible, no request

  • You may want to finish this task first. -> order. Read: "Finish this task first."


There is also the may indicating permission ("May I have this seat?"), but that was not part of your question.

  • Your second example reads more like a suggestion than a command. – User112638726 Jul 16 '15 at 14:53
  • @User112638726 Exactly what I'm talking about: Taken at face value, yes. But if your boss makes this "suggestion" it's not really a suggestion. – Stephie Jul 16 '15 at 14:57
  • Yes, but in most situations it is a suggestion, not a command, even in your example where a boss may say it, it is still a suggestion, but not following it may get you into trouble. I don't know if it is different where i am from (UK) but people almost never use it to issue commands. – User112638726 Jul 16 '15 at 15:05
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Your definition is accurate. Another way of writing that sentence would be as follows:

Be welcoming and patient, especially as it is possible those you deal with do not know everything you do.

May expresses possibility. In a positive sense it states that "such and such may be done". In a conditional sense it states that "such and such can be either true or false."

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