GrammarPhile Blog

Mother, May I?

Posted by Kimberly Largent   Nov 16, 2010 4:30:00 AM

Everyone remembers that childhood game, right? The one where you couldn’t take a step forward unless you asked the game leader, “Mother, May I?” Funny how we were grammatical as children, but we lost that ability as we aged.

Many of us get confused when we have to choose between using “will,” “can” and “may” in a sentence. For example, let’s say you go to the movies with your date Paul. Seating is cramped and you find you don’t have enough legroom because Paul has stretched his legs across the front of your theater seat. Do you ask, “Paul, can you move your legs?” or “Paul, will you move your legs?” Most of us, without thinking, would ask, “Paul, can you move your legs?” But the correct question to ask is, “Paul, will you move your legs?” A time when Paul might be asked if he “can” move his legs is if he were in a car accident and the paramedics were trying to learn the extent of his injuries. Now that you get that, let’s move on.

After the movie is over, you and Paul head to the nearest nightclub. While inside, Paul nudges you and asks, “Hey, can I smoke in this nightclub?” You think to yourself, “Well, unless this nightclub has some magical power over you, of course you can smoke in the nightclub!” But you refrain from your tongue-in-cheek response and instead say, “Paul, I believe you mean to ask, ‘May I smoke in this nightclub?’” “May” would be used because it is a question of permission, not ability. Of course Paul can smoke in the nightclub, the question is will the nightclub permit it?

Now that you are savvy on the use of “can,” “may” and “will,” you have decided that although Paul “can” ask you out again, you most definitely “will” say no. And, instead, you just “might” go out with his best friend John. Ahhh, “might.” We’ll save that one for another post.

Topics: misused words, word usage, grammar

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