My nearly-three-year-old grandson’s vocabulary is increasing in leaps and bounds, week by week, and it’s fascinating to hear him chatter away, incorporating his newly learnt words. Of course, being the good nonna that I am, he gets corrected, especially when he needs to learn to be polite with the pleases and thank yous. The current focus is when he says, ‘What?’
‘Not what, Olly—pardon’. He then yells ‘Pardon’…or rather, ‘Pardun’ at the top of his little voice—I got the message, Nonna!
And of course, there will be more to teach him. The above are easy corrections and—hopefully—quickly learnt. Soon though, some careful explanation will be needed. His ‘Nonna, I need a snack’ is constantly corrected by me to ‘No, Olly, Nonna, please may I have a snack’. But he’s going to get confused in a while with a little issue that still causes a little perplexity amongst us adults…the ‘can or may’ problem.
‘Mum, please can I go to the cinema tonight?’ said Louise.
Well, yes, she is indeed physically able to get changed, catch a bus, buy her ticket, and sit in a comfortable seat for two and half hours, and then get herself home again. But what she really wants is Mum’s approval, and so she’s asking for permission. What she really meant was, ‘Mum, please may I go the cinema tonight?’
Formerly, ‘can’ was used to denote ‘ability’ (I can ride a bike, I can rollerskate, can you play poker?), whilst ‘may’ permission. However, these days ‘can’ and ‘may’ have become interchangeable for ‘permission’ when used informally. In formal/polite instances, if you are asking (or giving) permission, ‘may’ should be used. So, our cinema-going aficionado, Louise, above, wasn’t really wrong, and I’m betting that if it was a school night, Mum wouldn’t have been in the slightest bit interested in whether she had used ‘can’ or ‘may’. The answer would still have been no.
I digress. Despite the modern acceptance of the interchangeability, I do feel the difference between the two should be recognised.
So, in a nutshell:
If you are asking if you are allowed, or telling someone they are allowed, to do something, in formal circumstances or merely to be polite, then use ‘may’:
You may unfasten your seatbelts.
May I speak to the manager, please?
Both the above are likely to be used in formal situations, so ‘may’ is appropriate.
Of course, characters in novels do have to be formal and informal, on occasion, too, so I do hope they know the difference…if I may be so bold…