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For VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

This week we will give you some tips on how to use modals to make requests and give permission.

Some common modals for expressing permission are may, can and could. But these modals have multiple meanings that can be confusing for English learners.

Can and May

Children in American schools learn to use the modal may when asking for permission. A student might ask the teacher, "May I be excused?" before leaving the room. When students asked, "Can I leave the room?" their teachers often made a joke, "You can, but you may not."

The teacher was saying the student is able to leave the room, but does not have permission to do so. May is the most formal way to ask for permission. The distinction between can and may is slowly disappearing in English.

These days, it is not always clear if may is being used to express permission or possibility — or both. Let's look at some examples in the language of internet privacy policies.

When you visit a website for the first time, you often see a popup box asking for permission to collect information about you. Privacy laws in some countries require websites to tell you what information is collected and how it will be used.

A common privacy statement includes this sentence: “We may collect various types of information … when you visit any of our sites.”

Let's see what this legal language really means. "We may collect information…" means that you give the company permission to collect information about you. In other words, you allow the company to save your email address or your computer's address.

But may has multiple meanings. In addition to expressing permission, may also expresses possibility. For example, “It may rain” means that there is a possibility of rain.

Let’s go back to our privacy example.

“We may collect various types of information … when you visit any of our sites.” The policy contains some clever legal language. “We may collect information” means “We have permission to collect information.” But it could also mean, “There is a possibility that we will collect information.” One could make an argument for both meanings. As an Internet user, you should assume both meanings of may are part of the policy.

Could and May

A third modal for making polite requests is could. For example, “Could I please have some water?” Could is the past tense of can. However, when asking for permission, could does not have a past tense meaning.

Could has the same meaning as may when making requests. It is equally polite to say, “Could I leave early?” or “May I leave early?”

Could is used with any subject to ask for permission. For example “Could I open the window?” or “Could you open the window?” are both grammatical.

Be careful with may. When making a request using may, only I can be the subject. If you are making a formal request to dance with someone, you would say, “May I have this dance?” not “May you have this dance?” May followed by you does not express a request; it expresses a wish, as in “May you live long.”

But that’s another episode. Until next time, we’ll leave you a song of permission by the Temptations.

May I have this dance

May I, may, may I have this dance

I’m Jonathan Evans with Ashley Thompson.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Adam Brock was the editor.


Words in This Story

modal verb - a verb (such as can, could, shall, should, ought to, will, or would) that is usually used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility, necessity, and permission

permission - n. the right or ability to do something that is given by someone who has the power to decide if it will be allowed or permitted

distinctionn. the separation of people or things into different groups

privacyn. the state of being away from public attention

pop-up adj. computers : appearing on the screen over another window or document

allow - v. to permit (something) : to regard or treat (something) as acceptable

formal - adj. of language: suitable for serious or official speech and writing


A Game to Learn "May"

A traditional children's game is called "Mother, May I?" One child plays the mother or father at one end of a room or a yard. The other children start on the opposite side in a line. The goal of the game is to get to the place where the mother or father stands. The mother/father player gives one player instructions, such as "Take three giant steps." The player must ask for permission to move forward by saying, "Mother, may I?" The mother/ father says, "Yes, you may" or "No, you may not." If the player moves without asking for permission, that player has to go back to the starting line. This game helps children to remember two things -- to ask permission and to be polite.

Now it’s your turn. Write one sentence politely asking for permission. And visit us on our Facebook page.

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