Difference Between Could and May (With Table)

Could and May are both modal verbs used by a person in a sentence for seeking a request or a possibility. Both have the same initial meaning that is to request something. Both can be used formally but could is used when a particular subject of the sentence has to ask for permission and when May can be used only in the first-person reference and not in second or a third person usually.

Could vs May

The main difference between Could and May is that ‘Could’ can be used when a third modal wants to seek permission, but when it comes to using ‘May’, only the letter ‘I’ can be used as the subject at the time of wanting to seek permission.

‘Could’ is a model verb that is used for expressing permission or a request. It is also used to show courtesy of a certain amount of concern in a sentence. ‘Could’ can be used in the first, second or third person in whichever a person wants to use in a sentence. Could is the past tense of can. So, it has a similar meaning to can.

‘May’ is used to denote a sense of possibility or a term of factual statement in a sentence. It is used to state that something is possible in the future or present. Using ‘May’, one can say that something is possible but not in a sure way. May is usually used in the future tense more often.

Comparison Table Between Could and May

Parameter of comparisonCouldMay
FunctionTo seek permission politely.To seek request formally.
TenseMostly used in past tense only.Used as present as well as past tense.
PossibilityThe possibility is of a general event.The possibility is of a specific event.
What its statesIt states that something could have happened.It states that something can happen in the future.
PronounIt is generally used for all three persons in the subject.It generally has ‘I’ as its subject.

What is Could?

‘Could’ is used generally to state that something must have happened. It is used to indicate that a particular thing would have been possible in the past, although it didn’t happen. A person can use ‘could’ to suggest that something was true or it just has happened. The negative form of could is ‘couldn’t’, which indicates something that will not occur or be impossible. When ‘could’ is used in a sentence, it also means that they are talking about a specific possibility or an ability of an event depending on some external or internal conditions.

‘Could’ is used in a sentence to denote a resemblance between one thing and another thing. ‘Could’ is also used by a person to question someone when they want to make a humble request or seek permission for something to happen. ‘Could’ in a sentence is also used sometimes after the word ‘if’ when a person talks about the ability or an opportunity they do not have or did not get but which you would not mind considering. Finally, ‘could’ is also used in an interrogative way to strongly emphasize something.

Examples-

  1. You could have passed your exam.
  2. How could you not let her do the work?
  3. How could you look so gorgeous!
  4. Could I please handle this part of the work?
  5. I could have killed you!

What is May?

‘May’ is used in a sentence generally to denote or identify that something may happen in the near future, but not for sure with certainty. The word ‘may’ is used by a person to indicate if something is true in a sentence.

May is also used only when something is true when something happens. When a person uses ‘may,’ it shows and indicates the statements when a person accepts truth for a situation, but in contrast, something else will happen. The word could be used with the past particle, which is ‘may have’ when someone wants to suggest that something was possibly true when it happened.

The word may is used sometimes in a sentence when someone is allowed to do something due to some rule or law stated. The negative form of may is may not. People most often use ‘may’ to ask or giving permission to someone from doing something. People use it to ask something in the most polite way to interrupt someone from asking any question or telling what a person was going to say.

Example-

  1. We may have a party today.
  2. We may go to that place today.
  3. May I enter the classroom?
  4. I may seek to understand what you are going through.
  5. We may not fail if we study hard.

Main Differences Between Could and May

  1. ‘May’ is usually used in the future tense and present tense, and on the other hand, ‘could’ is used in the past tense.
  2. ‘May’ is generally used in a formal manner, whereas ‘could’ is also used formally, but not as much as ‘may’.
  3. In a possible statement, ‘may’ is used as a general event, whereas, in the ‘could,’ it refers to a specific event.
  4. ‘Could’ is usually used in the third person as a subject, whereas ‘may’ usually have ‘I’ as its subject.
  5. ‘Could’ states that something could have happened in the past, whereas ‘may’ is used to state that something can happen in the future.

Conclusion

Both the words ‘could’ and ‘may’ are used to seek a request or permission in the most polite way. Both are used in a formal type of communication. Both have their negative forms that are ‘could not’ and ‘may not.’ The words could and may both have their features and characteristics which set them apart.

The terms ‘could’ and ‘may’ differ in meaning, making them not so similar. Because of this feature, there might be a misunderstanding among people if these words are interchanged. These words are used very commonly and widely in daily life in people’s everyday communication today.

References

  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27829317
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-2979.2004.00144.x
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