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may and can used for permission in the present or future
A First person
I/we can is the most usual form:
/ can take a day off whenever I want. I/we may meaning 'I/we have permission to . . .'is possible:
/ may leave the office as soon as I have finished.
But this is not a very common construction and it would be much more usual to say:
/ can leave/I'm allowed to leave . . . I/we may/might is a little more usual in indirect speech:
'You may leave when you've finished,' he says/said =
He says we may leave/He said we might leave . . . But in colloquial speech we would use can/could:
He says we can leave/He said we could leave.
B Second person
Here may is chiefly used when the speaker is giving permission. You may park here means 'I give you permission to park'. It does not normally mean The police etc. allow you to park' or 'You have a right to park'.
can can be used as an informal alternative to may here. But it can also be used to express the idea of having permission. You can park here can mean 'I allow it/The police allow it/You have a right to park here'. Similarly You can take two books home with you can mean 'I allow it/The library allows it' and You can't eat sandwiches in the library can mean 'I don't allow it/The librarian doesn't allow it' or 'It isn't the proper thing to do'. could can be used when there is an idea of condition:
Why don't you ring him? You can/could use my phone. could is also used in indirect speech introduced by a verb in a past tense:
He said I could use his phone.
C Third person
may can be used as in B above when the speaker is giving permission:
He may take my car. (I give him permission to take it.)
They may phone the office and reverse the charges.
(I give them permission.)
But it is chiefly used in impersonal statements concerning authority and permission:
In certain circumstances a police officer may (= has the right to) ask
a driver to take a breath test.
If convicted, an accused person may (= has the right to) appeal.
SCRABBLE RULES: No letter may be moved after it has been played. In informal English can/can't would be used:
He can take the car.
They can phone the office.
A police officer can ask a driver . . .
An accused person can appeal.
No letter can be moved . . .
Requests for permission (see also 283)
A can I?, could I?, may I?, might I? are all possible and can be used for the present or future, can I? is the most informal. could I? is the most generally useful of the four, as it can express both formal and informal requests.
may I? is a little more formal than could I? but can also be used for both types of requests.
might I? is more diffident than may I? and indicates greater uncertainty about the answer.
B The negative interrogative forms can't I? and couldn't I? are used to show that the speaker hopes for an affirmative answer: Can't I stay up till the end of the programme? Couldn 't I pay by cheque? may and might are not used in this way.
C Answers to can I/could I requests will normally be:
Yes, you can. Yes, of course (you can). No, you can't.
Affirmative answers to may I/might I requests are normally: Yes, you may. Yes, of course (you may).
For a negative answer No, you may not is possible but it would normally
be replaced by a milder expression:
I'd rather you didn't. I'm afraid not.
D Questions about permission are expressed by can or am/is/are
allowed to in the present and by could or was/were allowed to in
Can Tom use the car whenever he likes?
Is Tom allowed to use the car . . . ?
Could students choose what they wanted to study?
Were students allowed to choose . . . ?
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