The wrong usage of certain words in the English language can make us look stupid in front of others. And honestly, that becomes embarrassing. The improper usage of words stems not from non-understanding of the words, but from the similarity in their meanings. Today we have the case of “Can and May.”

How to Differentiate between Can and May

The matter of confusion lies in understanding where to use the said words. Both the words, “’can” and “may,” are used either in formal and informal senses.  “Can” and “May,” both are modal verbs. Modal verbs describe a necessity or a possibility of an event. The proper meanings and the appropriate usage of the words is given below.


The word “can” is usually used in informal senses, when asking for permissions. Most of the times, can is used to describe a capability of the person. This word is highly associated with the ability of a person or thing in some cases. The ability could be physical or mental. Although “can” is not used to ask permission, in some informal cases the usage of “can” is allowed.


  • I can run faster than most of my (denotes physical ability)
  • Alina can compose a poem in no time. (denotes mental ability)
  • If you don’t mind, can I ask you something? (informal permission)
  • I can play basketball.


“May” is used in a polite manner of speech. Similar to “can,”  the word “may” too ,is a modal verb. It is to express or denote a possibility or to ask for permission. “May” can also be used to grant or deny permission, this is also a polite manner of speech.


  • May I have this dance?
  • No, you may not touch that.
  • Alan may not be attending the graduation ceremony.
  • It may get cloudy tonight.

To Summarize:

  • “Can” and “may” are, modal or auxiliary verbs.
  • “Can” is used to express a physical or mental capability of a person or a thing.
  • However, “can” can be used to ask for permissions in informal speech.
  • “May,” is a formal and polite speech.
  • “May” is used to ask permission, in most cases.
  • It also denotes a possibility.