How to use the verb "may" English Grammar translation jobs
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How to use the verb "may"

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Many people find the verbs “can”, “may”, “shall”, “will”, and “must” confusing, and are often unsure which to choose (may or can? shall or will?). In an earlier article we looked at the differences between shall and will. In this article we will be focusing on the verb may.

May has two common functions – to ask (and grant) permission, and to express possibility.

1. Asking permission

a. general language

Can, could and may are all used to ask permission.

As a general rule, could is more polite than can:

could you deal with this file tomorrow? is more likely to be interpreted as a polite request, resulting in an equally polite reply, whereas:

can you deal with this file tomorrow? could be felt to be rather abrupt.

In the not so distant past, children were corrected when they began a question with "can I …?" To my question " can I get down from the table?" my grandmother would invariably reply " you can … but you may not!", meaning that although I was physically capable of getting down from the table (one of the main meanings of can – “to be able to”), I was not given permission to do so.

Nowadays, not many people would reject the use of can in asking permission, and may is considered a particularly polite form, best suited to more formal situations.

For example, you might ask a stranger on a train " may I sit here?", but you would ask a colleague or friend " can I borrow your pen for a minute?".

b. drafting business and legal documents

May can be used to express the granting of permission in business documents drafted in a more formal style. For example,

The principal may terminate this agreement, provided it gives the supplier adequate notice.

A company's general terms of sale may* provide that:

Customers may modify orders if the order has not yet been processed.

A bank could write in a brochure or in its general terms:

Customers may access their account details by using the special on-line service.

However, it would be quite acceptable to use the verb can, giving a more informal and more modern style:

Customers can access their account details by using the special on-line service.

* Here, may is used to express a possibility – see part 2.

2. Expressing possibility  

May can also be used to express a possibility or degree of probability.

a. general language

For all I know, you may be right.  

I may be able to deal with this matter tomorrow; if not, I will look at it next week.

Your lawyer may be mistaken in his analysis of the situation.

These examples mean: it is possible that … you are right / I will have time to deal with the matter tomorrow / your lawyer has got it wrong.

If you believe someone is wrong, a diplomatic "you may not be right about that" or "you may be mistaken" is usually better than a forthright "you cannot be right about that" !

b. drafting business and legal documents

In a business letter:

It may be possible to schedule a meeting next week. Please let me know which day would be convenient.

May is particularly useful in legal documents when you need to suggest possible actions or reasons, or give advice on possible solutions.

For example:

The delay may be due to reasons beyond your supplier's control. I advise that you check with him before taking legal action.

Circumstances may arise that have not been provided for in this agreement. In that case, the parties agree to meet at the earliest possible opportunity to determine a suitable line of action.

It may be … is a useful starting point when arguing in a formal style.

It may be that the defendant felt this clause allowed him to continue to work with other companies in the same sector …

The topic of modal verbs and conditional language will be dealt with in more detail in a subsequent article.

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