Writing Wednesday: Is it time to give up the “Can vs May” debate?

During my undergraduate years, I had a fabulous linguistics professor who told us that people often had the same response when they learned what he did for a living: “Oh, you’re an English professor? I guess I better watch my grammar around you.”

His response: “Well, you can watch your grammar if you want, but I have better things to do with my time.”

Surprising? Not to me, even though I’m a grammar geek. As I was telling my students yesterday, we can clarify our ideas when we speak conversationally; thus, we don’t have to worry quite so much about grammar during our conversations. Correct grammar is most essential when we’re writing and don’t have the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings for our reader.

This brings me to the old “can vs. may” debate that has played out in classrooms for decades. The student asks, “Can I go to the bathroom?” And the teacher responds, “May I go to the bathroom?” Or, if the teacher’s feeling snarky, she says, “I don’t know. Can you?”

Even though I’m an English teacher, I never “correct” my students when they ask if they can go to the bathroom. This may shock some of you, but the word can actually has more than one meaning. Yes, it means to have the ability to do something. However, according to every dictionary I could get my hands on (including Merriam-Webster), the word can also means to “have permission to —used interchangeably with may.”

So why do some people insist that can cannot be used as a synonym for may? Honestly, I don’t know. When my students ask if they can go to the bathroom, I know they’re asking me for permission, and isn’t that the point–that I understand what they are asking?

It’s time to admit that can has more than one meaning, and when it comes to correcting students’ use of the word, as my linguistics professor would say, we’ve got better things to do with our time.

This entry was posted in Grammar. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Writing Wednesday: Is it time to give up the “Can vs May” debate?

  1. Ginny Marie says:

    Okay, you’ve caught me! I was very guilty of this when my students asked me that very question! (Now I’m asking my three year old students “Do you need to go potty?”)

Leave a Reply