LINGUIST List 8.1445

Wed Oct 8 1997

Sum: Permissive "can" and "may"

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <>


  1. Hiroaki Tanaka, Permissive "can" and "may"

Message 1: Permissive "can" and "may"

Date: Wed, 8 Oct 1997 14:09:30 +0900
From: Hiroaki Tanaka <>
Subject: Permissive "can" and "may"

At the beginning of September I raised three questions about "can" and
My questions are like the following:
First, is it possible to use "can" instead of "may" in (1B)? Secondly, is
it possible to use "may" instead of "can" in (2B)?
(1) A: May I help myself to some more food?
 B: Yes, you may.
(2) A: Can I smoke here?
 B: So far as I know you can -- there's no notice to the contrary.
Thirdly, according to some grammar books, "can" is use instead of "may" to
talk about permission that has already been given and about things that are
allowed by rules and and laws. In other words, "can" is used to report the
rules and laws in question, as in (3) and (4):
(3) You can get married in Britain when you are 16.
(4) It's not fair. You can [*may] stay up till ten and I have to go to bed
at eight.
However, I have found the following examples, which are contrary to the 
reporting function above. How are these to be explained? Please make any 
comments on these (5) and (6).
(5) In England you may marry at sixteen.
(6) Students may borrow three books at a time from the library.

Soon after that I got 13 e-mails. Thank you for answering my questions. I
would express my sincere thanks to the following people who supplied useful
data:Vincent Jenkins, Margaret Jackman, Bruce Despain, Bradley Harris,
Stephenvan Bibber, Colin Whiteley, Sheri Wells-Jesen, Peter T. Daniels, Alan
Pagliere, David Harris, Joe Foster, Larry Trask and David Houghton.
The summary is as follows: As to examples (1) and (2) many people say that
in a question and answer situation the answer uses the same auxiliary verb as
the question. Concerning (3) and (4) there are some people who pointed out
that "can" and "may" are both entirely acceptable and that whether the speech
is direct or reported is not relevant. About (5) and (6) some people suggest
that "can" and "may" both make perfect sense and that the only difference
might be register. The following two comments are very interesting for me:
(1)Permission "may" is tending to disappear in the US among young speakers.
(2)The concepts of "can" and "may" are so blurred in the English speaker's

- ----------------------------------------------
Please e-mail me directly if you have further comments on this 

Best wishes,

Hiroaki Tanaka

Associate Professor
Faculty of Integrated Arts and Sciences
Tokushima University, Japan
1-1, Minamijousanjioma,
Tokushima, 770,

phone & fax: +81 886 56 7125
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