Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Can and May

Can vs May

Can and may are two terms that are almost alike in usage. This likeness is the cause of confusion between the two terms.
Both terms are auxiliary words that are followed by an infinitive. Both also function as modal verbs.

As modal verbs, both may and can function differently depending on the tenses (or time aspects) and their positive or negative forms.

May and can are usually used to denote possibility or permission. In this usage, the term can is used in informal or casual contexts. May is the formal counterpart of can.

May, used in the context of possibility, is applicable for present, past and future time frames. It is used in both positive and negative forms. An alternative term is might.

In the context of giving permission, may can be used in present, past and future time. It is also applicable in positive or negative form in that situation’s context. Can is a possible term to substitute.

In requesting permission, the terms can and might can be used. There is only a positive form which can be used in past, present or future tense.
The term can is also a modal verb. The base term can is subject to change depending on the time, context and form used.
Can is usable when asking permission in any time (past, present and future) and in any form (both positive and negative form). The alternative term for this word in this context is may.

Could and may are two options for can in the event of requests. Can is usable in all time frames and forms. The same is true for the occasion of possibility or impossibility. The alternate word for can in this situation is could.

Both terms are also used for request, suggestion and invitation.

Aside from possibility or permission, the term can expresses the capability of a person or entity in a physical or mental manner. It characterizes the ability to do or not to do. It can be a specific power, means or right. Furthermore, it also denotes opportunity for one or two parties.

By using can, there is a higher degree of possibility while may denotes a lesser chance. The term can also provides encouragement and motivation of one party to another.

The past form of can is could. Likewise, the past tense of may is might.

In addition, both can and may can be used to answer a question or suggestion by another party. It functions as approval or rejection of an action.

Another notable difference is that can has a negative form, which is can’t. The long form of this contraction is can not.  Meanwhile, the negative counterpart for may is mayn’t or may not. However, this term isn’t widely used or as applicable as may, can or can’t.


  1. Both can and may are used interchangeably for many occasions and purposes. These occasions and purposes include the context of possibility, permission and request, as well as suggestion and invitation. They can be used in an interrogative sentence and as part of a reply to a question.
  2. As parts of speech, can and may are auxiliary verbs which are often accompanied by an infinitive. They are also modal verbs that change in terms of time aspect and assume either a positive or negative form.
  3. The past tense of can is could while the may past counterpart is might.
  4. Both terms have a positive form and a corresponding negative form.
  5. When asking or giving permission  or in the context of a request, can is used for informal occasions while may denotes a degree of politeness or formality.
  6. The term can is also used to indicate the physical or mental ability of a person or entity.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow! What a confusing answer!
    Though often used interchangeably, there is a difference in meaning:
    “Can” denotes the ability to do something.
    “May” denotes (a) one is permitted to do something, or
    (b) the possibility of doing something, in which case it’s synonymous with “might.”

    “I can go to the store.” Means “I have the ability to go to the store.”
    “I may go to the store.” Means: (a) “I’m permitted to go to the store,” or (b) “There’s a possibility that I’ll go to the store.”

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