Person asking can or may
Child asking can or may

Can and May - the differences

The English language verbs Can and May have similar meanings, but they are different, as I shall explain, using British English examples. 

Can means "to be able to", to have the ability to do something.
"I can speak French."
"They can be in London in two hours."
"Can you swim underwater for 2 minutes?"
"Can he play the piano well?"

May means "to be allowed to", to be given permission. This is despite the word deriving from the Old English mæg meaning "am able". May is most frequently used as part of a question, where the speaker is asking to be allowed to do something.
"May I go to the party and come home at 1am?"
"May we have cake with our tea?"
"It looks so delicate, may I touch it?"

May is also correctly used without a question, although this will often sound old-fashioned or very formal.
"Cinderella may go to the ball, but only after she has cleaned the kitchen."
"The children may only have cake if they have tidied their rooms."

In informal speech, you will often hear "can" used when actually "may" would be the grammatically correct word, for example:
"Can I go to the movies tonight, please?" The speaker is asking if they are allowed to go out, therefore "may" should be used. However to ask "May I go to the movies?" sounds quite formal or posh. It would be unusual to hear this in the majority of the British population.

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