'May' vs 'Can': What's the Difference Between the Two?

By Shanea Patterson, updated on January 26, 2023

Should you say, ‘May I have a drink?’ or ‘Can I have a drink?’ And what’s the difference between the two words? We can help you make the right choice and define the word so you know how to use it in a sentence.

In short, ‘may’ and ‘can’ have similar meanings, but here’s the difference:

  • ‘May’ is the more formal way to ask a question.
  • ‘Can’ is the more common way to ask a question.

Both words are used to ask about the possibility of something.

‘Can’ vs. ‘May’: How to Use Them

You might have seen people ask a question using either ‘may’ or ‘can.’ So, what’s the difference?

Well, the only difference is that ‘may’ is more formal than ‘can’ in asking a question. 

‘Can’ vs. ‘May’ in Simple Terms

If you’ve ever been in any type of formal setting, people may have corrected you, insisting that you use ‘may’ instead of ‘can.’

But that’s really the only difference between the words.

Let’s quickly define them, so we know how to use them in a sentence.

Definition and Meaning of ‘May’ and ‘Can’

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of ‘may’ is used to refer to possibility and is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘can.’

It could also mean having permission to or having the ability to, as well as a must.

The definition of ‘can’ is be physically or mentally able to, know how to, or used to indicate possibility.

It could also mean being enabled by law, agreement, or custom to, as well as know and understand.

These two words are used interchangeably very often in the English language.

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce ‘May’ and ‘Can’

Wondering how to pronounce these words? Here’s a short guide.

  • To pronounce ‘may’ use the phonetic spelling: mei
  • To pronounce ‘can’ use the phonetic spelling: KEN

How to Use ‘May’ and ‘Can’ in a Sentence

Now that you know the meaning and how to pronounce both words, let’s look at examples of how to use them in a sentence.

  • May I go to the movie theater with my friends after I do my chores?
  • Can I have $200 to get my hair done? I just spent all my money on my nails.
  • Can I please use the dryer now? I think your clothes are done now.
  • May I please have my money back? I don’t think I want the product anymore.
  • Can I have my t-shirt back? You borrowed it from me almost two weeks ago.
  • May I please use the restroom? I can't hold it any longer.

Final Advice on ‘May’ and ‘Can’

To recap, you learned that ‘may’ and ‘can’ have the same meaning, but they’re two different words. That means they’re okay to use interchangeably. Just remember that ‘may’ is more formal than ‘can.’

If you ever forget, you can always come back to refresh your memory. We’ve also got a whole library of content on other confusing words and phrases you might come across while learning the English language. Go check it out anytime you need to.

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Written By:
Shanea Patterson
Shanea Patterson is a writer based in New York and loves writing for brands big and small. She has a master's degree in professional writing from New York University and a bachelor's degree in English from Mercy College.

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