Difference Between Can and May (With Table)

The main difference between Can and May is that ‘can’ talks on the ability to do something while ‘may’ explain the possibility for that something to potentially happen.

The usage of ‘can’ and ‘may’ is paramount to gain a grip on English grammar and formulate linguistically prim syntax. The most common ground of mistake noticed is in the use of words; ‘can’ and ‘may’. Both are auxiliary verbs in English grammar.

Can vs May

The difference between Can and May is that the context of “Can” is informal while the context of may is formal. Can is sometimes used for permission whereas “May” is always used for permission. “Can” stands for capability and “May” stands for possibility or for permission.

Example: He ‘can’ teach you. He ‘may’ not come. You ‘may’ come in.

The term ‘can’ is used when an individual is allowed to do something. May is used when someone needs to discuss some possibilities that are to take place in the future.

The word ‘can’ give assurance while the term ‘may’ symbolizes’ a potential possibility. The term, ‘can’ and ‘may’ can be used as a statement and a question.

Comparison Table Between Can and May

Parameter of ComparisonCanMay
MeaningShows the ability to do somethingDenotes the possibility of a happening
UsageExpression of physical abilityExpression of permission
TenseMainly in Present- present tenseUsually in Present-future tense.
PermissionThe words used are assertiveThe choice of words are persuasive
ContextInformal in natureFormal tone
PossibilityHigher occurrence in actualityLower occurrence based on futurist anticipation

What is the Meaning of Can?

The word ‘can’ is a modal verb that is used informally depicting a sense of ownership by speaking loud through words on the potential of an individual.

The potential refers to mental, physical, emotional, and overall abilities. Can is also used to give suggestions and talks on a possibility. Examples below shall aid in gaining clarity.

Sense of ownership and potential

Example 1:  I can beat that score that they have made

Making a request

Example 2: Can you please substitute me in the cricket match.

 Represents a future possibility

Example 3: If she arrives before time, she can get a better seat to sit/

What is the Meaning of May?

The term ‘may’ is a verb; also auxiliary in its tense is uses when we talk about events, actions that could take place in the future.

May also is used when one wants to give permission to others to do something on their behalf.

May is used for sharing a possibility.

Example 1: I may not be able to come to the party tomorrow.

May is also used to seek permission before acting upon something.

Example 2: May I please move this table from here?

May is also used to give hopes or wishes.

Example 3:  Don’t worry; everything may work out in your favor

Example 4:  May you have a good year ahead?

Main Differences Between Can and May


Can is a helping word that is used to express capability, ability as well as mental and physical strength. May is a modal verb that seeks permission, approval or asserts a potential future event. Additionally the meaning of both ‘can’ and ‘may’ is understood in the context they are used, the purpose they serve, the need and the audience or person that is being addressed.

Simply put, ‘can’ is used to allow something while ‘May’ gives room look at future possibilities and laxity.


The term ‘can’ is used when one wants to show their capacity, capability, strength, zeal, and vigor. The term ‘can’ is also used to represent a possibility or request for something. While ‘may’ is used to give greetings, seek permission and foresee a possibility.

The word can is also used to seek permission but in an informal way. There is a difference between request and permission.

For Example Permission and Request

  1. Can you please shift a little bit (request)
  2. May I please sit over there?  (Permission)


The tense used in the sentences plays a key difference point. The term ‘can’ is in the present-present tense while the word may is a present-future tense.

Example for Can

  1. Can you please call me back?
  2. I can make this presentation
  3. She can draft the report well.

Example for May

  1. I may skip the dinner tomorrow
  2. May I please get an opportunity to speak?
  3. May there be peace and happiness in your family.


There is no need to seek permission when the word ‘can’ is used. While permission is by default needed when one chooses to use the word may. For example, I can lift this table for you. (There is s sense of surety that I can do this)

May I please lift this table for you? (This is a formal way of conversing where permission is taken before lifting the table)


As explained above using an example, the word ‘can’ is used a bit informally and be used in an informal setting or a familiar setting. While the term ‘may’ is used in a much more professional capacity and is more polite in nature.

For Example:

  1. Can I clean my room later?
  2. May I please clean my room later?

If my mom asked me to clean my room, the first example is apt. But if she asked me to clean my room when we had a guest at home, I would have used the second example that as a request or seeks permission.

The context, place, people involved all matter on when and how an individual uses the term ‘can’ and ‘may’.


The term ‘can’ and ‘may’ both are used as verbs and nouns. It can have a better chance of occurrence as it serves the tense of present-present. While the possibility of happening of an event when an individual uses ‘may’ reduces.

For Example:

  1. She can win the race (hopeful and futuristically positive)
  2. She may win the race (not sure on the possibility)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Can and May

Is saying may you proper grammar?

Using ‘may you’ in a sentence is grammatically correct. The word ‘may’ refers to any type of possibility that is going to happen in the future.

Using ‘may you’ is not grammatically incorrect if used like this:
• May you have a blessed and happy life forever!

What kind of a word is May?

May is used to asking for permission, to state something that you are unsure of or to wish something for somebody or for yourself.

Does may mean must?

Generally may does not mean must.

May means something that could or could not be possible in the future, while must means a strong possibility or a situation in which someone has to fulfill the task one has been assigned to.

But there is one condition where must act like may. If a task is assigned to a person who is not capable enough to perform it, must can act like may in such a situation.

Like – You must finish all the math questions by evening. (the person in this sentence is not able to do all the math question)

What form of the verb is used with May?

Usually may is used with the present base form of the verb.

For example –
a) He may visit Mary this Sunday.

If be succeeds may, past participle or present participle form of the verb is used.

For example –

  1. He may be gone by the time you will reach there. (past participle)
  2. We may be going to the carnival this weekend. (the present participle)

What is the difference between maybe and may be?

Maybe and may be both contain the same letters but they cannot be exchanged with each other. Both imply different meanings in a sentence.

Maybe is an adverb whereas ‘may’ and ‘be’ are both verbs. Maybe cannot be used as a verb and ‘may be’ cannot be used as an adverb.

However, they imply somewhat similar meanings. Examples –

  1. Maybe I will go to the party.
  2. He may be going to the party.
  3. Maybe Sarah knows the solution to this equation.
  4. We may be coming to your house for dinner today.

Are can and may interchangeable?

Can is used mostly in an informal way while may is mostly used to imply politeness of formality in a sentence. Sometimes they are interchangeable.

For example –

  1. You may keep the change.
  2. You can keep the change.
  3. May I borrow your pen?
  4. Can I borrow your pen?

You can interchange them when the person you are referring to is okay with both your formal and informal gestures.


Insofar, what is drawn out through supporting examples is that both ‘can’ and ‘may’ are modal verbs that serve the purpose of being aware of abilities and possibilities, capabilities and futurity, assertiveness and requisition.

The term ‘can’ expresses the ability in an informal way. While the term ‘may’ is used to express that same ability in a persuasive way.

Both ‘can’ and ‘may’ are important auxiliary verbs. The spell-out of both terms depends on the purpose, intention, and message that are intended to be conveyed. Both ‘can’ and ‘may’, may be used with if you can use it systematically through an understanding of linguistic underpinning and literary criterion.


  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/can
  2. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/may