Can vs May

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What’s the difference between them?



Can is an auxiliary verb that is used to indicate possibility, ability, permission, or to ask a question.


1. 'Can I borrow your pen?'

2. 'Can you help me carry this?'

3. 'Can we have a moment of silence?'



May: verb (used with permission) - to be allowed or permitted to do something.


1. May your birthday be filled with joy and laughter!

2. May the odds be ever in your favor.

3. I may have to change my plans for the weekend.

Learn similar and opposite words to spot the difference




1. Ability

2. Potential

3. Capacity

4. Possession

5. Be capable of

1. Cannot

2. Don't

3. Refrain

4. Shun

5. Avoid


1. Might

2. Could

3. Should

4. Must

5. It is necessary

1. Deny

2. Refuse

3. Disagree

4. Avoid

5. Withhold

Tricks for mastery

Useful tips to understand the difference between confusing words "Can", "May".

1. Use 'can' when expressing ability, permission, or possibility.

2. Use 'may' when asking permission or expressing possibility.

Check the full list of commonly confused words in English

Learn the difference

Frequently asked questions

In what situations should the first word be used?

'Can' is used to indicate physical or mental ability or permission. For example, 'I can swim' (ability) or 'Can I go to the bathroom?' (permission).

When is the appropriate context for using the second word?

'May' is used to seek or grant permission formally or politely. For instance, 'May I borrow your book?' (seeking permission) or 'You may leave the meeting' (granting permission).

Do the two words share the same pronunciation?

No, 'can' and 'may' have different pronunciations. 'Can' is typically pronounced as /kæn/, while 'may' is pronounced as /meɪ/.

What are some common mistakes people make when using these words?

One common mistake is using 'can' when seeking formal permission, as it's often considered less polite than using 'may.' Another error is using 'may' when talking about ability, which can lead to confusion. Additionally, some people interchange these words in casual speech, but context matters for clarity.

Fill in the gaps to check yourself

1. ________ you help me with my homework?

2. ________ I go to the bathroom, please?

3. Birds ________ fly.

4. ________ I offer you some tea or coffee?

5. Its amazing what technology ________ do these days.

6. _______ I borrow your book for the weekend?

1. Can you help me with my homework?

Explanation: Can is typically used to request or offer assistance. In this context, the person is seeking help, so can is the appropriate choice.

2. May I go to the bathroom, please?

Explanation: May is often used to formally request permission. In this context, the person is asking for permission to use the bathroom.

3. Birds can fly.

Explanation: Can is used to indicate ability or capability. Birds have the capability to fly, so can is the right term.

4. May I offer you some tea or coffee?

Explanation: May is used to politely offer something. The speaker is courteously offering tea or coffee.

5. Its amazing what technology can do these days.

Explanation: Can is used to denote ability. The statement is commenting on the capabilities of modern technology.

6. May I borrow your book for the weekend?

Explanation: May is used here to formally request permission. The person is asking if they can borrow a book.1.

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List of Commonly Confused Words

Finding your way around the English language can be hard, especially since there are so many confusing words and rules. So, a list of the most confusing words in English is an extremely useful tool for improving language accuracy and sharing the ideas clearly.