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Using the word ‘may’ in May Posted by on May 3, 2016 in English Grammar

Since we have just entered the month of May I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about this month’s homophone the other word ‘may’. The month of May is a proper noun, but the ‘may’ I want to talk about today is a modal verb.

Image by Luz Adriana Villa on Flickr.com licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Image by Luz Adriana Villa
on Flickr.com licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The auxiliary modal verb ‘may’ is (generally) used for three purposes:
granting permission
making polite requests
expressing a possibility

Here are three examples using ‘may’ in sentences. These three examples show the ways the word ‘may’ is used as outlined above.

You may buy something, if you wish, but you can only spent $5.00. (granting permission )
May I sit here? (making polite requests)
It may rain tomorrow. (expressing a possibility)

Learning to use auxiliary verbs correctly is not the easiest thing to do in English, but once you do learn how to use auxiliary verbs, another problem pops up – which auxiliary verb should you use in which context? There is often confusion about the difference between the auxiliaries: may, can, and might. So, let’s take a look how at these three auxiliary verbs, with special focus on ‘may’ – because it is May!

Here are some helpful hints to keep straight how may, can, and might are intended to be used.

The word ‘can’ is used to express ability, whereas the word ‘may’ is used to express permission. Here are two examples illustrating this difference:

Can you lift that 25 lb. box?
(Do you have the ability to lift the box?)

May I have a cookie?
(Am I permitted to have a cookie?)

In real life, most English speakers use the word ‘can’ for both ability and permission. ‘Can’ is used this way mostly in informal settings, but ‘may’ is still only used for permission (not ability) in these situation.

Can you lift that 25 lb. box?
Not: May you lift that 25 lb box?
Can I have a cookie?

In a formal setting or in polite company, you should use ‘may’ for permission in questions and granting permission in answers.

You may go. (granting permission)
May I smoke? (permission)

Now, let’s look at ‘may’ and ‘might’. The auxiliary verbs ‘may’ and ‘might’ are both ways of expressing possibility, granting permission, and making polite requests. They can be used interchangeable, except that ‘may’ is generally used in the present tense and ‘might’ is generally used when talking about something in the past tense. Here are some examples:

You may go home early if you have finished all your work. (present tense)
James might have gone home early if he already finished all his work. (past tense)

The “official” difference between ‘may’ and ‘might’ is based on the tense of the verb, but of course there is some flexibility between official use and practical use. In actuality many native English speakers interchange ‘may’ and ‘might’ on a regular basis regardless of the tense they are using – to native English speakers both words = possibility.

For example:
I may leave early if I’m not feeling well.
I might leave early if I’m not feeling well.

There is a distinction between ‘may have’ and ‘might have’ that you should know about because it is pretty consistent. If the truth about a situation happening is unknown at the time of speaking or writing, either ‘may have’ or ‘might have’ is acceptable. If a situation did not actually occur, or the truth of what actually happened is unknown, it is always better to use ‘might have’.

Here are some examples:
What the president said may have offended people.

What the president said might have offended people.

If the president had said that it might have offended people.

Enjoy practicing the use of ‘may’ this May and be sure to ask any questions you have about using this auxiliary verb in the comment area below.

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About the Author:Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


  1. mariangela:

    Hi Gabriele thanks for your clear explanation. It would be interesting to read something about the difference between CAN and TO BE ABLE TO .( To be able to is more a physical ability whereas Can a more general ability ?). And also have a look at HAVE TO- MUST in the affirmative and negative forms. thanks