mylabskie:Hello. Just want to ask when should we use "May" and "Can"? Can i go out? May i go out? thanks.
Joe Carillo: We use the auxiliary verbs “may” or “can” to express possibility, to denote the capacity to do something, or to express permission or ask for it. Our choice between them, however, greatly depends on the level of formality of the situation as well as on the social or professional rank or relative seniority between the speaker and the listener. As a general rule, “can” leans towards the informal side of saying things, and “may” to the formal side.
Among friends, for instance, it’s expected and more natural to ask “Can I go out?” than to ask “May I go out?” (To use the latter often draws quizzical looks from the listeners, as if the speaker came from Mars or somewhere else in time.) Conversely, if the speaker is a student addressing a professor in class or someone much more senior in rank or age, it’s considered polite and proper to ask “May I go out?” and rude—even uneducated—to ask “Can I go out?” If you are a lawyer, in fact, a stern judge may even cite you for contempt of court if you asked “Can I see Your Honor in chambers?” instead of “May I see Your Honor in chambers?” This is because in such situations, “can” becomes an improper demand as opposed to “may,” which signifies a plain, humble request.
I must say, though, that this distinction in the usage of “can” and “may” is often not very well appreciated among nonnative speakers of English; it often takes years of social interaction in formal settings or situations for them to understand the difference—and in the interim they are unfairly looked upon as crass or uncouth by socially fastidious people. Thankfully, the acquisition and acclimatization process for the proper usage of “can” and “may” is greatly hastened by reading English-language publications and by exposure to English-language movies and TV shows. In the Philippines, in particular, my feeling is that by the time the typical schooled Filipino turns 10, choosing properly whether to use “may” or “can” has become second nature to him or her. This is something that sets us apart from the people of other countries that don’t have a long English-language heritage like ours.