Great explanation on the subtle differences between “can” and “may”
I believe it’s generally known that “can” is the favored verb when asking about whether it’s physically or mentally possible to do a thing and “may” is favored when asking for permission, but there turn out to be some nuances that can be a little confusing. With the help of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (which I refer to often in these posts), I’ll outline some of the nuances.
First, Garner allows that in speech and informal writing, the distinction is insisted upon only by the “insufferable precisian.” So when blogging informally, feel free to use “can” in place of “may.” In fact, among three caveats Garner offers is one suggesting that over-use of “may” can give your writing a prissy tone.
The other two caveats:
- Use of phrases like “mayn’t I” or “may I not” can be stilted, so it’s…
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