And You May Ask Yourself …

by Charmaine on July 1, 2009

I used to be afraid of David Byrne from Talking Heads. It started with his jerky, spastic moves in the “Once in a Lifetime” video, and then the oversized suit just sent me over the top.

Anywho … as your talking-head-in-residence, you may find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure whether to use “may” or “can,” as in the following examples:

“Other operations may be remotely monitored and adjusted manually.”

“With this online tool, you will not receive a paper check stub. Instead, you may access a secure online tool.”

To me, these sentences — from a white paper and a benefits newsletter, respectively — reveal a timidness on the part of the author (something I seem to have a low tolerance for, given my call for authors to step out from behind the passive voice in an earlier post). “May” traditionally indicates that you are seeking permission, while “can” indicates capability or possibility. In these¬† sentences, the context clearly indicates the conveyance of possibility, not pleading.

Read the sentences again and then question them using “may”: “May I remotely monitor and manually adjust other operations?” “May I access a secure online tool?” I don’t know — may you?

In these instances, no, you may not —¬† but you certainly can.

Unfortunately, some sentences aren’t quite so easy. What about this one?

“Medical nutrition therapy addresses situations in which a change in eating habits may significantly improve your health.”

Although it’s true that a change in eating habits “may” — as in might, or perhaps — improve your health, it’s also true that a change in eating habits “can” — as in could possibly — improve your health.

All things being equal in this situation, it’s time to turn to the author’s intent. Is the communication attempting to persuade readers of the benefits of medical nutrition therapy? Then it’s probably wise to use “can.”

Alternately, does the overall tone seem more guarded? Is medical nutrition therapy but one of many solutions discussed? In that case, you’re probably fine leaving it as “may.”

Still, I wouldn’t be blogging about this if I wasn’t spending quite a bit of time canning “may” and inserting “can,” because even in a sentence that clearly implies possibility, “can” doesn’t sound egregiously wrong. Let’s take this sentence:

“College seniors facing an unsure job market may look to graduate school as a way to wait out the recession.”

And replace “may” with “can”:

“College seniors facing an unsure job market can look to graduate school as a way to wait out the recession.”

They both read fine to me. In other words, you can’t go wrong with “can.”

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