• The proper use of ‘can’ and ‘may’ as a mark of civility


    I don’t recall having shared in this column the very basic but interesting discussion below about the usage of the modals “can” and “may.” It was in reply to a question posed by a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum almost five years ago, and I thought the discussion might help arrest the marked decline in civility in our public and interpersonal communication in English.

    The question of Forum member Mylabskie was this: “When should we use ‘may’ and ‘can’? When do we say ‘Cazn I go out?’ and ‘May I go out’?”

    Here’s my reply to Mylabskie:
    We use the modal verbs “may” or “can” to express possibility, to denote the capacity to do something, or to express permission or ask for it. For this third purpose, our choice between “may” and “can” depends on the level of formality of the situation and on the social or professional rank or relative seniority between speaker and listener. As a general rule, “can” leans towards the informal side of saying things, and “may” towards the formal side.

    Among friends, for instance, it is expected and more natural to ask “Can I go out?” than to ask “May I go out?” To use the latter would draw quizzical looks from the listeners, as if the speaker came from Mars or somewhere else in time. Conversely, if the speaker is a student addressing a professor in class or someone much more senior in rank or age, it’s considered polite and proper to ask “May I go out?” and rude—even uneducated—to ask “Can I go out?”

    If you are a lawyer, a stern judge might even cite you for contempt of court if you asked “Can I see Your Honor in chambers?” instead of “May I see Your Honor in chambers?” This is because in such situations, “can” becomes an improper, distasteful demand as opposed to “may,” which signifies a plain, humble request.

    I must say, though, that this distinction between “can” and “may” is often not well understood and appreciated by nonnative speakers of English; it often takes years of social interaction in formal settings or situations for them to understand the difference—and in the interim, the wrong usage makes them unfairly looked upon as crass or uncouth by socially fastidious people. Thankfully, the acquisition and acclimatization process for the proper usage of “can” and “may” is greatly hastened by reading English-language publications and by enough exposure to English-language movies and TV shows.

    * * *

    Here’s another question about language, this time from Forum member Miss Mae:

    “Since I got hooked into reading books, I would always take note of its lesson that appeals to me and share it through a social networking site. In Janet Fitch’s novel White Oleander, although I’m quite sure of the book’s message that I wanted to post, I’m not confident on how I should put it. Is the sentence ‘The best way to learn is to live’ more appropriate than ‘The best way to learn is through living’?”

    My reply to Miss Mae:
    Yes, in the context of Janet Fitch’s novel, the construction “The best way to learn is to live” captures your intended sense much better than “The best way to learn is through living.” The second sentence, which uses “through living” as a noun complement, denotes the passive sense of just continuing to be alive, or just subsisting. In contrast, the first sentence, which uses the infinitive “to live,” denotes the active, more purposive sense of living a life rich in experience or, more idiomatically, living it up. I’m sure that this sense is much more in keeping with the plot of that novel, which is a coming-of-age story about a young girl separated from her mother and grows up in one foster home after another.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.



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