Can/may I? Yes, you can/may.

Discussion in 'Italian-English' started by Tommaso Gastaldi, Dec 10, 2005.

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  1. Tommaso Gastaldi

    Tommaso Gastaldi Senior Member

    Italian, ITALY
    I was watching a program on the tv, which is supposed to have instructional purposes as to teaching English. At a certain point a boy asks his teacher: can I go to the toilet? The teacher answers: Yes, you can.

    I have been wondering: but shouldn't have been used there the form may I? Yes, you may, or is it just the same?
  2. Alfry

    Alfry Senior Member

    I was taught:
    May I?
    yes, you can

    but also
    Can I?
    yes you can
  3. thrice Senior Member

    Fort Worth, Texas
    English - U.S.
    Yes, the better way to ask the question is "May I". In my experience, teachers, in an effort to show to child the error in asking "Can I" instead of "May I", will reply to the question with "Of course you can, we call can" or "I don't know, can you?" or some other smart-allicky remark, after which the child usually responds with the expected reply "MAY I go to the bathroom, PLEASE". Geez, (there you go TimeHP, an example of when one might use 'geez' :)) I hated when they did that :)
  4. lsp

    lsp Senior Member

    US, English
    To be precise (which Americans are NOT), "May I?"/"Yes, you may," refers to permission, while "Can I?"/"Yes, you can," refers to ability. Grownups famously reply to children who ask "Can I leave the table?" before the meal is over, "You can, but you may not."

    Sooner or later we all say "can I?" to mean "may I?"
  5. ElaineG

    ElaineG Senior Member

    Brooklyn NY
    The more unpleasant teachers used to torture us when I was in elementary school:

    "Can I go to the bathroom?" Teacher: "You can, but you may not. Ask correctly." Small unhappy child: "May I go to the bathroom?" "Yes, you may."

    Later in life: "Dad, can I drive the car?" "Well, you can drive it." "Good, give me the keys." "I said you "can" drive it, not that I was going to give you permission to."

    The point they were trying to teach us was "can I?" "yes, you can" only says that it's possible (i.e., that you have the physical ability to go the bathroom or use the car). "May" asks for and grants permission.

    Does anyone but grumpy teachers and parents stand on this distinction? No. If you ask your friend, "Can I use your phone?", he's not going to withhold it until you ask "nicely."

    What would be the Italian equivalent? I know potrei is more polite than posso, but the can/may distinction doesn't seem to be there.
  6. AlxGrim

    AlxGrim Senior Member

    Roma, Italy
    Italy, Italian
    I think you're right... we don't make such a distinction, as our "potere" works in both cases

    . Posso usare il telefono? (asking if I may)
    . Posso usare il telefono. (stating that I can)

    Of course, as you noticed, "potrei" is more polite. Among close friends, you could also say "Mi fai usare il telefono/il bagno/la macchina/etc...?"
  7. Tommaso Gastaldi

    Tommaso Gastaldi Senior Member

    Italian, ITALY
    Q. Che dici, posso farcela?
    R. "Volere è potere!"

    Q. Dici che posso chiederle se ha il ragazzo?
    R. "Domandare è lecito. Rispondere è cortesia."


    Gli uomini son come i tegoli, si danno da bere l’un con l’altro.
    E quando ciò fanno, cuoprono e fanno salubre la casa dove tutti dimoriamo.

    (Giuseppe Giusti 1809-1850)
  8. aminervi Member

    Providence, RI
    La distinzione esiste anche in italiano:
    May I use the phone? Posso usare il telefono?
    I can use the phone. So usare il telefono.

    Can you drive your father's car? Sai guidare l'auto di tuo padre? (are you able to operate that specific car?)
    May you drive...? Puoi/Hai il permesso di guidare..


    Oggi la mia auto e' dal meccanico ma posso/potrei guidare quella di mio padre.
  9. marcolettici Senior Member

    English U.S.
    The distinction is indeed a bit of a relic at this point in AE. Teachers and parents are the only ones who make a big deal of it. It's probably time to let it go. But it's soooo empowering for some adults to know some point of grammar and lord it over the little ones. :)
  10. DavideV

    DavideV Senior Member

    Now I'm curious: which show? Is it on a pay-per-view tv?
  11. wizzerad Member

    Oulu, Finland
    I keep reading sentences where "may not" is used as "can not". For example, in an official call for Scientific Proposals, I read today the following:
    "An individual researcher may not be recruited as an early-stage researcher and subsequently as an experienced researcher within the same network."
    Here the meaning of "can not" appears quite evident to me. I keep reading such things in official documents, so it can't be carelessness.

    In school teachers teach carefully the meanings of "must" and "can" and how they must be used in positive and negative form:
    "I have to do something" (I am obliged to do it)
    "I must not do something" (I am obliged not to do it)
    "I have not to do something" (I am not obliged to do anything. I may do it if I wish.)

    Is there a rule also for "may" of this kind?
    In Isp post (above) I also read
    "Can I leave the table?" / "You can, but you may not."
    where I would replace "may not" --> "are not allowed to"

    "You may not do it."
    sounds terribly to me like
    "I suggest you not do it. But the choice is yours."
    and not like
    "You are not allowed to do it."

    Last edited: Mar 21, 2012
  12. Blackman

    Blackman Senior Member

    Island of Sardinia, Italy
    La spiegazione di ElaineG è semplicemente illuminante.

  13. AlabamaBoy

    AlabamaBoy Senior Member

    Northern Colorado USA
    American English
    It definitely means "You are not allowed to do it." (Non si può.)
    On the other hand, in the sentence "You may decide to do it," it (may) means that "you might decide to do it" and has nothing to do with being allowed to decide to do it.
    So "may" is very tricky and can mean "might" or "be allowed to" depending on which verbs it is used with, the context, the tone of voice, and the phase of the moon.
  14. wizzerad Member

    Oulu, Finland
    Therefore, now I see the difference between "might" and "may"
    "I might do it" (I have the permission and the physical capabilities to do it and, if I wish, I do it)
    "I might not do it" (If wish, I do not do it. If I wish, I do it.)
    "I may do it" (I have the permission to do it)
    "I may not do it" (I do not have the permission to do it)
    "I can do it" (I am physically capable to do it)
    "I cannot do it" (I am physically not capable to do it, or, generally, there is something which denies my doing it)

    Therefore, an expression like this now makes sense:
    "I can do it, I may do it, but I might not."
    English gets more interesting when you know it... :)

    :) Yeap!

  15. london calling Senior Member

    Sì, è quello che mi hanno insegnato a scuola, ma non è più una cosa così ...... vitale;). Mi sa di genitori che torturano i propri figli!:D (Mai fatto una cosa del genere, e autorizzerei i figli a spararmi, nel caso).;)
  16. Pat (√2)

    Pat (√2) Senior Member

    - Can I shoot you in the leg, Mum?
    - Well, I suppose you can.
    - All right, then. (Bang!)
    - #*%&!

    (Che St. George mi perdoni :rolleyes:)
  17. You little ripper! Senior Member

    Australian English
    "May I?" is dead and buried in Australia (I went to the funeral! ;)). You do get the odd prim and proper over-seventy-year-old who occasionally tries to resurrect it, but it's rare. :)
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