English grammar help: how to use ‘can’, ‘may’ and ‘might’

These three words can sometimes cause quite the confusion. So let’s try to change that by getting some more practice in!

‘Can’ and ‘May’
Can – The physical or mental ability to do something.
For example; “Can you play the violin?”

May – Authorization or permission to do something.
For example; “May I please use your stapler?”

Now unfortunately, these two words can cause trouble. The meanings of ‘can’ and ‘may’ are often confused, and even native speakers sometimes use them incorrectly. Because this is a common mix-up it can make it a bit difficult to realize when there is actually a mistake being made. Let’s look at another example:

“Can I borrow your book?”
“May I borrow your book?”

Which do you think is correct? If you use “Can I…” you are literally asking if you have the ability to pick the book up from the person’s hands, walk away with it, and return it later.

If you use “May I…” then you are asking permission to use the book and bring it back at a later time. Therefore you would hopefully say that “May I…” is the correct choice here. Your ability is assumed, so you really just want to ask permission. Right? However, like we have discussed, it would not be uncommon to hear a native English speaker ask “Can I borrow your book?”

‘May’ and ‘might’ are a bit easier. Besides being a request for permission, the word ‘may’ can also refer to something that is likely to happen. ‘Might’ has a similar meaning, but refers to something a bit less likely to happen. It’s a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. Let’s look at a few examples:

“Do you think it will rain tonight? I don’t know, it might.” (small possibility)
“You’re head is warm. You may be coming down with a cold.” (a possibility )

The word you choose depends on what level of certainty you are feeling about the situation, and there isn’t really a right or wrong answer about which to use.

Let’s practice ‘may’ Vs. ‘can’:

1. Hey — you do anything on Wednesday?
No, sorry I am busy, but — I borrow those shoes?
2. — you hear that? They are so loud.
3. — I go out with my friends tonight?
4. — I please have the salt? Thanks.
5. If you — sing, you — join the chorus.
6. — I take your jacket?
7. — you see this stain on my shirt?
No, it looks fine. — you have dinner ready by 5pm tonight?
I —, but — you pass the soap please?

1. can, may 2. can 3. may 4. may 5. can, can 6. may 7. can, can, can, may