Difference Between Can and May (With Table)

The auxiliary verb is helping verbs often used with the main verbs to help them express the main verb’s mood, voice and tense. The main auxiliary verbs include to be, to have and to do. They further have many forms like, is, are will be and have, had, will have and do, does, respectively.

Can vs May

The difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’ is that both the auxiliary verbs are used in different scenarios, can indicate an ability to do something. While may is used for indicating future possibilities or happenings. Both the verbs are often juxtaposed in the case of a possibility or permission.

Can is an auxiliary verb that means ‘an ability of’ or ‘to do something. In general terms, it is used to showcase the capability of a particular person. It is also used in an informal setting when an individual asks for permission to do something. Some of the examples are, Can you write this for me? She can sing well and Please, can you help me.

May is an auxiliary verb used, indicating any possibility or future events that may occur. It is often used in a formal setting when an individual needs to give or take permission from someone or want to do something. Some of the examples are, The exam may start in December, May I come in ma’am? You may go, etc.

Comparison Table Between Can and May

Parameters of ComparisonCanMay
DefinitionCan is used while referencing to an ability of someone doing something.May is used while referencing the possibility of an even or the permission of doing something.
ContextIt is used in an Informal context.It is used in a Formal context.
UsageSometimes used for asking permission.Often used for asking permission.
IndicationsIt is often used to indicate an offer or suggestions.It is often used to indicate a wish or hope.
ExampleTo understand clearly, for instance – I can solve this problem.To understand clearly, for instance – I may start this book tomorrow.

What is Can?

Can is an auxiliary verb often used in informal settings. It usually indicates an individual’s ability to do something. It can also determine the possibility of a person asking something informally. It has multiple usages and is included in our sentences, whether verbally or in writing, on a daily basis.

Can is also helpful in asking for something. Some of its examples include; Can you please help me? Can you pass this key? Can I please speak now?, Etc. At times it also indicates possibilities like; You can expect the package tomorrow. And at last, it can be used to give an offer or suggestions, for example, Can I help you? etc.

One of the usages of the can is, indicating the ability of an individual. We often hear statements like: Can you speak English? He can win the game; This is the best way, I can solve the problem etc. From the above context, it is clear now that ‘can’ is often used to ask permission informally, like talking to friends, colleagues, family, etc. Some of its examples include: Can I get my money back? You can go inside; she can speak now.

What is May?

May can clearly be described as a helping verb that is used to indicate future possibilities or happenings or any events occurring in the future too. It is used for asking permission in a formal situation. It is used in multiple cases, with its meaning slightly varying.

May is used to represent a possibility in future. It is common to hear this daily if one is familiar with the English language and prefers to interact with others in this language. May is also used while seeking or receiving permission. You will find teachers and other people who are much familiar with the correct grammar usage of English, emphasizing the use of ‘may’ in place of ‘can’. This is because ‘may’ is considered more polite and well-mannered than ’can’.

To understand more clearly, one can always look for examples around them in daily life like – You may drink water, May I talk to your student, ma’am? She may go home early, etc. May is often used in the English language for indicating hopes and wishes. Some of the examples include; May you fulfil all your dreams etc.

Main Differences Between Can and May

  1. Can is used to denote the ability of an individual to do something, on the one hand. On the other hand, may is used to give or receive permission to do something.
  2. Can is also used for asking permission in informal settings, like when a child asks the mother if she can have a chocolate. On the other hand, May is used for asking permission in formal settings like schools or other institutions.
  3. Can often denotes the possibility of something happening in the future. On the other hand, May is used in hopeful or wishful situations like May all your wishes come true.
  4. Can is used while asserting the ability of an individual, for example; He can repair the shower. May is used to seeking or permitting an individual to do something, for example; Students may disperse to their respective classes.
  5. Can is often corrected by teachers in school when a student uses the verb. On the other hand, May is encouraged to use by the teachers, as it is grammatically correct.


Though both the auxiliary verbs are used to ask for permission, formally or informally, context matters a lot. Students can’t ask their teachers, “Can I come in?”; they are taught to use “May I come in?”.

May is grammatically more suitable for formal situations, and that is why many teachers or professors in English emphasize using ‘may’ instead of ‘can’ when talking to someone respectable or elderly. While the can is more suitable for informal situations like while talking to a friend, co-worker, stranger, etc. Thus, the context is the most important while an individual uses the auxiliary verbs can and may.


  1. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XqlJXGVs60EC&oi=fnd&pg=PA185&dq=Differences+Between+Can+and+May+auxillaries&ots=C4_MHgCeMK&sig=koJcJ9J1iddbeQkFKg033_hjoz4
  2. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110895339.223/html
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