A note for English learners (2): Can, May and Might

@indexer (2073)
Leicester, England
November 2, 2018 11:23am CST
The words can, may and might all have to do with the possibility of something happening in the future, and the first two can also be used to indicate that permission is being granted for something to happen. But what determines when each of these should and should not be used? Here are three sentences: I can go to London I may go to London I might go to London Do they mean exactly the same? Not quite! The first could mean that it is physically possible for me to go – I have bought a train ticket, for example – whereas the second implies that, although the possibility is there, there is a chance that I won’t go – I could change my mind, for example. Can is therefore more positive than may. The third is nearly identical in meaning to the second, on the assumption that we are only talking about the possibility or probability of going, although may is a more positive word to use in this context. However, the same words would also suffice to imply that permission has been granted for the trip – in the case of can and may, but not might. In terms of permission granting, there is no real difference between can and may. There can therefore be confusion as to what is meant in a statement such as: You can open the box. Does this mean that you are physically capable of unlocking it and lifting the lid, or have you been given permission to do so? It could be very important to make this clear, because either interpretation is possible. If using the past tense, might does what may does in the present and future tenses: I may go to London tomorrow but I might have gone yesterday. When subtle shades of meaning are involved, it is vital to get things like this right! (It is also worth pointing out that can and might have other, completely different, meanings in English, and May is the name of a month. As if this little matter was not complicated enough as it stood!)
15 people like this
14 responses
@NormanDarlo (1208)
• Ireland
2 Nov
It is the overlap of meanings which is really confusing. Colloquially I grew up using 'can' to request permission, but got corrected to 'may' at school. I felt resentful about this at one time, but it was useful to learn about different registers of course. I tend to be quite blasé about linguistic rules, but one thing that really does irk me is people using 'may' as its own past tense, where they should properly use 'might'. This is very common, even on the BBC
6 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@NormanDarlo there are things that even broadcasters ignore!
2 people like this
• Austin, Texas
2 Nov
LOL. People have an uncanny way of mentioning things that bring back childhood memories. My aunt was constantly correcting about when to use “can” and when to use “may”. I remember thinking: 'When I grow up I'm going to use the word 'can' as many times I want to and she won't be able to STOP ME!' LOL. As I got older I realized my aunt was doing me favor by correcting my English. The older I got, the more I appreciated her. God bless Aunt Bern!!
@indexer (2073)
• Leicester, England
3 Nov
I have a feeling that this could be a difference between American and British usage. On this side of the Pond there is nothing wrong in using can in the "permission" sense.
3 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@indexer yes in some ways the use of "can" looks right.
2 people like this
• Austin, Texas
3 Nov
@indexer - Oh yes. My husband is from The Bahamas and constantly reminds that he speaks "real English". Not the English the Americans speak.
@vandana7 (68559)
• India
2 Nov
This one I knew...but thanks for the refresher. :) It helped. If you are doing series, thanks from the bottom of my heart. Some idiomatic usages would help too. Thanks a lot.
5 people like this
@indexer (2073)
• Leicester, England
3 Nov
You're welcome! Are there any particular things that worry you and which you would like some help with? (Such as using a preposition at the end of a sentence, which is something I have just done!)
4 people like this
@vandana7 (68559)
• India
3 Nov
@indexer Yes...the use of the word "the" ..that one kills me - there simply seems to be no logic to using it. Then I do not have any idea what is meant by run on sentences.
2 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@indexer may be something about use of advice and advise and similar stuff?
2 people like this
@LadyDuck (182630)
• Switzerland
2 Nov
I remember when I studied English, this was tricky and we often made mistakes.
4 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@LadyDuck yes often marks get cut on such questions.
1 person likes this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
2 Nov
Well some use "Can I drink water?" some say "May I drink water?" I prefer using May here.
3 people like this
@DaddyEvil (26042)
• Aurora, Missouri
2 Nov
When asking permission, may is the correct form to use. Someone asking "can I drink water" is using the word wrong. How have you been doing, my friend?
5 people like this
@indexer (2073)
• Leicester, England
3 Nov
@DaddyEvil It's not wrong if you're British - only Americans get worked up about this, it seems! (Although we would say "some water" is this particular case)
4 people like this
@DaddyEvil (26042)
• Aurora, Missouri
3 Nov
@indexer Yup! I'm an American!
2 people like this
@mandala100 (52558)
• Hong Kong
2 Nov
Thanks for the explanation my friend.
3 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@mandala100 you are welcome and enjoy your weekend.
2 people like this
@m_audrey6788 (17261)
• Philippines
2 Nov
It`s nice to have something like this Thanks for the additional English learnings
3 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@m_audrey6788 yes this discussion looked quite interesting and good for learning.
1 person likes this
@May2k8 (7008)
• Indonesia
2 Nov
the three sentences have differences, 'can' means sure, 'may' is uncertain, 'might' means possible.
3 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@May2k8 yes very much indeed!
2 people like this
@dave121495 (1169)
• Philippines
3 Nov
I might know the third one (lol). Really i know the third one but not the first and second one. Thanks for the refresher. It's good to have someone posting about good grammars, it's a good quality control for those who want to be top notched on writing.
2 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@dave121495 yes such discussions act as a refresher!
1 person likes this
• Dallas, Texas
3 Nov
This has been an interesting tutorial. Now I am starting to wonder if I might have used may improperly at times. It may seem elementary but I might just learn a thing or two from reading this discussion. The topic can make a person think.
2 people like this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@lookatdesktop yes that is why I thought about sharing this topic.
1 person likes this
@iridion9 (10806)
• Philippines
3 Nov
are you an English teacher?
2 people like this
@sol_cee (18137)
• Japan
3 Nov
The most common error I encountered is using can/may/might + verb -ing or past tense. Like I can going. Or I may went.
1 person likes this
@ptrikha_2 (10852)
• India
3 Nov
@sol_cee that looks like some mixing up and we have to use our words and sentence formations carefully. Many things come by experience and there are resources available on Net to help us like m-w.com etc.
1 person likes this
@bagarad (12865)
• Paso Robles, California
4 Nov
This is a very clear information for those who want to make sure they use these words properly. unfortunately, many people no longer care much about those differences and use whichever word comes to mind first.
1 person likes this
@JudyEv (137101)
• Bunbury, Australia
4 Nov
It's good to be reminded of these subtle differences.
1 person likes this