How to use Can, Could and May to ask for permission

Can, could and may are all modal verbs and we use them all to ask if it’s OK to do something. So how are they different and how do we respond when we want to agree to a permission request, and also to refuse? In this video you’ll find out.

Click here to see more everyday English conversation videos.
Click here to learn how we pronounce can’t differently in British and American English.
Click here to learn about the modal verbs can and could and the verb be able to.

Can Could May Permission Video

How are these questions different? And how do we answer them? In this lesson we’ll find out.
We use all these phrases to ask if it’s OK to do something. Let’s look at three examples.

Can I park here, officer?
No, it’s not allowed.

Could I borrow your toothbrush?
What’s wrong with yours?
I lost it.

Oh, Vicki. I’ve got a yoga class this evening and I don’t want to be late. May I leave work early?
Yeah, OK. Maybe I’ll come with you.
That would be great.

‘Can I…’, ‘Could I…’ and ‘May I…’ They all mean the same thing here. Look, we can change them round and the meanings stay the same.
We use all these phrases to ask for permission to do something.

You can’t park here. You don’t have permission.

So is there a difference? Well yes, it’s about the situation we’re in and how careful we want to be about being correct and polite.
‘May’ is the most formal. ‘Can’ is the most informal. And ‘could’ is a little more formal than ‘can’.
When I was a child, my mum told me I should use ‘May I’ to ask for permission. It was a common rule back then and the old grammar books said ‘May I’ was more polite.
But the way we speak has changed over time and these days ‘Can I’ is much more frequent. In fact English speakers are now ten times more likely to say ‘Can I’ than ‘May I’. Yeah, ten times!
So do you need to learn ‘May I’ or can you forget it? You ned it because there are particular situations where we still use it. Maybe if someone’s giving a talk or speech to a group of people.

May I begin by thanking you all for being with us today?

Or perhaps they’re providing a service to a customer.

This is Rachel speaking. Sorry to keep you waiting. How may I help you?

Or perhaps they’re in a business meeting, and they want to make a suggestion.

I don’t think so.
Why not?
It’s not a good idea.
Yes it is.
May I suggest we come back to this later if we have time?

So ‘may I’, ‘could I’, ‘can I’ – they’re all useful when you need to ask for permission. But most of the time you’re going to say ‘Can I’ or ‘Could I’.
Now next thing. How should you respond if someone asks these questions?
Let’s look at some more examples, but this time pay attention to the answers. You’re going to hear six different replies. Are you ready?

Vicki, can I have a word?
Sure.

May I come in?
Mr Hale! Why, certainly.
Congratulations.
Thank you very much.

My battery’s flat. Can I use your phone?
Yes, of course.
Thank you.
You’re welcome.

Could I borrow these?
Yeah, OK.
May I serve tea now Miss Angorda?
Yes, please do, Warner.

Oh pizza. Can I have some?
Sure.
May I have some too?
Yes, help yourself.

Here are the replies you heard. They all mean ‘yes’ and they’re all polite. But which two are most formal? What do you think?
It’s these two: ‘Why certainly’ and ‘Please do’ are a little more formal. Also, notice ’Help yourself’. It’s a little different. We say this when we want someone to serve themselves or to take something.

Oh pizza. Can I have some?
Sure.
May I have some too?
Yes, help yourself.

OK, now that’s how we say yes, but what if we want to say no? Well, sometimes we apologise.

Can I borrow these?
Oh no. I’m afraid I need them.
That’s OK.

I’m afraid. It means ‘I’m sorry’ here so it’s a gentle, polite no. Of course we can also give a firm or definite no.

Oh Kathy!
How are you?
Fine.
Do you have a moment?
Can we speak with you about the Boston project?
What about it?
It’s the deadline. We’re a little behind.
Could we have another week?
No way. You need to finish by Friday?
Well, then can we hire an assistant?
Not on your life.
You don’t like the idea then?
In a word, no.

These phrases are all definite no’s and the last one means you won’t even discuss it.
Great! So that’s it. Now you know how we use ‘can’, ‘could’ and ‘may’ to ask for permission in English. And you also know some different ways to reply.
If you enjoyed this video, can I make a suggestion? Why not subscribe to our channel? And could I suggest you share this video with a friend? Perhaps they’ll enjoy it too. See you all next week! Bye now!
Click here to see more everyday English conversation videos.
Click here to learn how we pronounce can’t differently in British and American English.
Click here to learn about the modal verbs can and could and the verb be able to.

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