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4. May and Can for Permission

A. Asking for Permission

Can, could, may and might are all used in asking for permission.

If you ask in a very simple and direct way, you use ‘can’. It is probably the commonest of the four.

Can I ask a question?

Can I have a drop more whisky?

Can we have something to wipe our hands please?

‘Could’ is more polite than ‘can’, and is more hesitant than ‘can’, and is used when you are not sure that you will get permission (or you don’t want to sound too sure).

Could I just interrupt a minute?

Could I ask you something, if you’re not too busy?

Could we put this fire on?

The negative-interrogative forms can’t I? and couldn’t I? are used to show that the speaker hopes for an affirmative answer:

Can’t I stay up till the end of the programme?

Couldn’t I pay by check?

‘May’ is also used to ask permission, but this is more formal, though some people consider that ‘can’ is not correct and that one should say May I...? ‘Might’ is rather old-fashioned and is not often used in modern English.

May I have a cigarette?

May I stop work a little earlier tonight?

Might I take the liberty of pointing out that you are wrong?

B.Giving and Refusing Permission

1. When you want to give someone permission to do something, you use ‘can’.

You can wait in my office if you want.

You can smoke if you like.

She can go with you.

‘May’ is also used to give permission, but this is more formal.

You may leave as soon as you have finished.

You may telephone from here. (a written notice)

‘Could’ and ‘might’ are not used to give permission because they suggest respect and are more natural in asking for permission than in giving it.

Could I use your phone? - Yes, of course you can.

Might I trouble you for a light? - You may indeed.

2. To refuse permission we use the negative forms:

Can I have some sweets? - No, you can’t.

Members may not bring more than two visitors into the club.

But sometimes we replace the negative answer No, you may not by a milder expression:

Could we borrow your ladder? - I’m afraid not.

May I see these papers? - I’d rather you didn’t.

We can also use ‘will not’, ‘shall not’ and ‘must’:

I’ll just go upstairs. - You will not.

You shan’t leave without my permission.

Bicycles must not (may not) be left here.

C. Talking about Permission

When we talk about permission that has already been given by someone else, we use can, could and be allowed to.

1. We use ‘can’ to talk about the present or the future, and we use ‘could’ for the past:

Present: Each passenger can take one bag onto the plane.

Future: I can’t have another day off work tomorrow.

Past: Years ago you could park your car anywhere.

We can also use ‘be allowed to’:

Present: Passengers are allowed to take one bag onto the plane.

Future: Will I be allowed to record the interview on tape?

Past: We weren’t allowed to feed the animals at the zoo yesterday.

2. In the past, either ‘could’ or ‘was/were allowed to’ can be used to say that one was allowed to do something at any time (‘general permission’). But we don’t use ‘could’ to talk about permission for one particular action in the past.

I was allowed to see her yesterday evening.

I was allowed to leave work early yesterday.

Not: I could leave work early yesterday.

(This is like the difference between ‘could’ and ‘was able to’.

3. You use ‘be allowed to’ when you are talking about permission, but not when you are asking for it or giving it. Compare questions with ‘may’ and ‘be allowed to’:

May I take a photo of you?

(Asking for permission: ‘Will you allow it?’)

Are we allowed to take photos?

(Asking about permission: ‘What is the rule?’)

4.‘May’ is usually used in more formal situations to say that someone is allowed to do something, and ‘may not’ is used to say that they are not allowed to do it.

If convicted, an accused person may appeal.

The retailer may not sell that book below the publisher’s price.

‘Might’ can be used after a past verb in ‘reported speech’.

Mary said that I might borrow her car.

5. You have to use ‘be allowed to’ instead of a modal if you are using an other modal, or if you want to use an ‘-ing’ form, a past participle, or a to- infinitive.

Teachers will be allowed to decide for themselves.

I’m strongly in favour of people being allowed to put on plays.

They have not been allowed to come.

We were going to be allowed to travel on the trains.