Difference Between Shall and May (With Table)

Communication plays a very important role as it helps us convey our feelings, thoughts and get our work done. To communicate properly, our usage of language and grammar needs to be good. Grammar is known as a structural foundation. It helps us to convey the precise meaning and avoids confusion.

If grammar is not used properly, the meaning of the message can change and hence one should know the correct usage of words according to the context. Grammar has eight parts of speech. Each has a different meaning according to its usage. Shall and may are two examples of modal auxiliary verbs.

Shall vs May

The difference between shall and may is that shall is used when you give a command or tell something inevitable, whereas may is used when one needs to ask permission and something is optional (not a command). Shall is mandatory, whereas may is used when it is left on an individual to make a decision.

Shall is a modal verb that is used with the base form of the main verb. The word shall is used to predict something, announce decisions or make offers, also used in legal writing. Shall acts like a command, something that is mandatory. It is used to express something likely to happen in the future.

May is a modal auxiliary verb that is used after the subject and before another verb. The word may is used to ask, give or refuse permission about a possibility or probability, also used in formal writing (academic or legal writing). It is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘can’. May is discretionary. The sentence used after May is refused as optional.

Comparison Table Between Shall and May

 Parameters of Comparison Shall   May
 Meaning Shall is used to give a command or express the futurity of something. May is used for asking, grant permission, or indicate a possibility of something.
 Intensity Comparatively sounds more intense. sounds less intense
 Past form Past variation of shall is should. Might is used at times as a part variation of May.
 Form of the Subject Indicates action by a singular or plural subject. May is used for indicating action by a singular subject.
 TenseFuture tense Simple past or present
 Indicates Shall indicates a manifestation of possibilities. May demonstrates an implied possibility.

What is Shall?

Shall is a modal auxiliary verb that is used to express simple futurity, things that seem likely to happen, or inevitable things. It is also used to express command in regular use or legal writing. A modal verb is a verb that indicates modality; it is a subset of an auxiliary verb. It is used with another verb to show it’s tense, used with the base form of the main verb.

Shall is often used to indicate future actions when the subject is singular or plural. It can be used in the first, second, and third person. Shall is used to indicate the future tense in the first person, and when used in the second or third person, it indicates a promise, command, or compulsory action. Shall is usually used in question tags when ‘lets’ is the main verb.

When shall is used in offers, suggestions, invitations, and requests, the nature of possibility often develops into a need or necessity. It is considered to be a little more intense compared to the other words. Shall is less commonly used while speaking or having conversations. The negative form of shall is ‘shall not’, and the contraction of shall not is ‘shan’t’. Past tense of shall is should, and it is usually confused with ‘will’.

Examples – the usage of shall

  • When used as a suggestion – “shall we take a cab home?”
  • When used as an offer – “I shall make the arrangements for your stay.”
  • When used as an instruction – “I shall meet you here at 3 pm.”
  • When used as a fact – “I shall turn 20 this week.”
  • When used as formal writing – “an attendance report shall be kept of all students arriving late.”
  • When used as a question tag – “let’s go to the mall, shall we?”

What is May?

May is a modal verb that is used after the subject and before another verb. You cannot use May with another modal verb. A modal verb is a part of an auxiliary verb that indicated modality – permission, requests, suggestions, etc. It accompanies the base form of another verb. May has an affirmative, negative, and a question form. It is used in the present tense, mostly in the second person when the subject’s nature is singular. May has no participles or no infinitive form.

May is used for asking or grant permission, indicate possibility or probability, used in legal writings, it is a subordinate clause used to express a purpose. It sometimes gives a sense of uncertainty. May is often interchanged with the word ‘can’. ‘Might have’ in the form of may used in the simple past. In legal documents, may is discretionary; whatever is said after May is left at the discretion of the person making the decision.

Examples – usage in a sentence

  • When used as an explanation of something – “she may have been sleeping all day.”
  • When used as an indication of something – “he may be back this year.”
  • When used as a question form – “may I get some water?”
  • When used while giving permission – “yes, you may go out.”
  • When used while refusing permission – “no, you may not.”

Main Differences Between Shall and May

  1. Shall is used to give a command or express futurity of something, whereas may is used to ask, grant permission, or indicate a possibility.
  2. Shall gives a sense of certainty, whereas may is used when things are not certain.
  3. Shall is used in the future tense, whereas may is used in simple past or present tense.
  4. Shall is considered to be more intense, whereas may is comparatively less intense.
  5. Shall is used to indicate action by a singular or plural subject, whereas may is used to indicate action by a singular subject.
  6. The past form/variation of shall is ‘should’, whereas the past variation of may is ‘might’.


Language and grammar both play a vital role in understanding a context. If not used properly, it can create a lot of misunderstandings. Grammar is the basic building block and the foundation of any language; each individual is taught about it since childhood.

Shall and may are both modal verbs that tend to have similarities, but their usage cannot be changed. They are both equally important whether used while speaking or writing. They are used to convey different meanings and have a different level of certainty.


  1. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110810301.115/html
  2. https://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Y8-GvEPHA68C&oi=fnd&pg=PR1&dq=may+in+grammar&ots=4BNcy9LXkR&sig=m_f8VVVGiUcHtDJKKdB1T9yJR64
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