Maybe it’s due to the elementary school I attended, but whenever I hear someone ask “Can I…[fill in the blank],” my mind immediately responds with, “I don’t know…can you?”
Let me explain.
“Can” is formally used when asking about ability while “may” is used when requesting something.
Thus, if your friend asks, “Can I have another cookie?” you might feel justified to respond with, “I don’t know, can you?” Your friend is clearly requesting seconds while the response is questioning her ability to physically handle another cookie.
So which term is correct?
Sticklers for proper grammar (like myself) will always say “may” when making a request and “can” when asking about ability.
The Dreaded Exception
Much to my dismay, the English language has evolved to allow the use of “can” when making a request in informal situations. Therefore, the friend asking if she can have another cookie is not technically incorrect. However, if you are writing or speaking in a business or educational situation (such as an email at work, your thesis paper or in a speech), stick with “may” when asking permission and “can” when asking about ability.
If you are not sure if you chose the correct word or you’re worried that you missed something during your initial review, contact Unscripted for a light edit.