Saturday, March 22, 2014

Can or May?

Last week Jen described her peeve about the word 'over.'  A peeve of mine is the correct usage of 'can' and 'may.'

When my father was transferred to Ethiopia, my older brothers and I stayed in the States. I attended an all-girls' college prep school.  Miss Moulding was my 10th grade English and Latin class teacher. Some girls made fun of her but she was the best teacher for this aspiring writer, who'd always gotten A's in English, but to whom Miss Moulding gave a 1st quarter C-. I'd never had a C- grade before.

Miss Moulding was no fool. She loved Chaucer. She made us diagram complex sentences. She corrected homework with a red ink fountain pen.

She taught me that 'can' means the ability to do, or not do, something.  Can I go to Betsy's house? means I am asking if I am able to get there. Do I have the capability to navigate? To walk? To ride a bike?

"May I go to Betsy's house?" is what I should say when I am asking for permission to go to Betsy's house.

 If I wrote 'can' where 'may' needed to go, Miss Moulding would cross out 'can' and write 'Can you?'

"Can I" is common usage, but it is incorrect.
Miss Moulding says.


  1. That was drummed into me by my English teacher too, Ana! But 'can' instead of 'may' seems to have become fairly commonplace these days, and the 'may I ...' phrase is now starting to sound somewhat old-fashioned.

  2. I know. Maybe if we keep using these words correctly, we'll keep them alive.

    Ever play Mother May I?

  3. Yes, I was taught the same lesson throughout my school years. Doesn't mean I always say it correctly, but I hope I write it correctly!

  4. What's 'Mother May I?'

    It has also occurred to be that 'can' and 'will' are swapped sometimes. Today I said to my grandson. 'Can you change that light bulb for me?' - when I obviously knew he could! But I still used 'can you...?' instead of 'will you ...?'

  5. Mother may I was a game we played in grade school in Germany. Kids would form a line. "Mother" would stand off ahead with his/her back turned. One kid would call out, "Mother may I?" and be given permission to move up two, or three steps. Everyone else would steal forward and freeze when Mother turned around suddenly. If you were still, you could stay. If you were caught moving, you were out. Object was to get as close to mother as possible.

  6. I wonder if kids still play it?

  7. Never heard of 'Mother may I'. It's not played here, The only similar ones are 'What time is it, Mr Wolf?' or 'Simon Says'.