Difference between 'May I' and 'Can I' | May I vs Can I

When you ask for permissions, you either use ‘May I’ or ‘Can I’, isn’t it? But have you ever thought about whether these two words are used in the same contexts or not? This article will discuss the phrases ‘May I’ and ‘Can I’ in detail and explain whether they are different from each other or not. Once students understand the difference, it will be easy for them to apply these words correctly in sentences of their own.

Not only these words, but there are many other such pairs of words present in the English Language that have confuse students. Students can only use these words correctly when they know the meanings of such confusing words. Let’s have a look at the following points that are discussed in this article.

Table Summarising the Difference between ‘May I’ and ‘Can I’

May I
Can I
Meaning The word ‘May I’ is used to ask for permission. The word ‘Can I’ is used to refer to possible abilities or to seek permission.
Usage It is used as a verb. It is used as a verb.
Example May I come inside? Can I participate in the quiz?

The table above points out that ‘May I’ or ‘Can I’ can’t be treated as synonymous and can’t be used interchangeably. Students who previously used these interchangeably can now use them correctly in sentences according to appropriate contexts. One thing to notice is that while using ‘can I’ in the given example in the table above, it looks like a permission, but it is not. It is about someone who has doubts about their ability to participate in the event like – whether they are eligible to participate or not or whether they have enough knowledge to play the quiz or not etc.

The Difference between ‘May I’ and ‘Can I’ – Meanings

Though ‘May I’ or ‘Can I’ are used to ask questions, they aren’t the same. Though most people use these words interchangeably, it is recommended that one uses them in the proper contexts. The word ‘May I’ is used to ask for permission and has been in use for a longer time in English for asking permissions in a more formal context, for example, ‘May I come in, sir?’ On the other hand, the word ‘Can I’ came into use recently and is used to seek permission or for requests and mostly in informal contexts and situations e.g. ‘Can I talk to Mr. William?’ Students need to understand the situations involved to decide which one would create a better tone of permission or request before using ‘May I’ and ‘Can I’.

Examples of ‘May I’ and ‘Can I’

The following example will help students understand ‘May I’ and ‘Can I’:

May I May I have a glass of water?

Can ICan I visit the party tomorrow?


‘May I’ and ‘Can I’ – Conclusion

In conclusion, the words ‘May I’ and ‘Can I’ aren’t synonymous and should not be used interchangeably. This article points out the difference between these two commonly confused words and helps students learn how to use them correctly – the contexts and tones are very important. BYJU’S offers various articles on many such articles on ‘Difference Between Two Words’ that students often get confused with.


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