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
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
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, 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
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
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
distinction – n.
the separation of people or things into different groups
privacy – n.
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
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.