Mother May I: Commonly Confused Helping Verbs for Freelance Writers

by Anne Wayman

helping verbsBy Allison VanNest of Grammarly.com

Can I take a moment of your time? Or wait…is it “May I take a moment of your time”?

Even the most seasoned professional writers struggle with the difference between can/may/might and will/shall. Let’s take a closer look at these commonly confused auxiliary (or helping) verbs.

Can vs. May

Until relatively recently, can was used to indicate ability or possibility while may was used to mean permission. Recall the classic 1996 Lifetime movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?; the title question asks if Tori Spelling is allowed to sleep with danger, not whether she’s able to do so.  However, as our language has continued to evolve, can has become the more popular choice.

May has taken on a more old-fashioned patina; in fact, a survey of Google Books shows that “Can I” began to overtake “May I” in published books around 1960.

It is acceptable to use these words interchangeably, but there will always be sticklers out there who will correct your usage. When a kid asks “Can I go to the bathroom,” someone will inevitably answer, “I don’t know, can you?” This is needlessly pedantic; don’t be that person.

4 examples:

“Can I borrow your pen?”

“I can hop on one foot while singing the national anthem.”

“May I have another slice of cheesecake?”

“You may bring one carryon and one personal item.”

May vs. Might

Like the previous pair of words, there exists only a shade of difference between may and might. According to Phillip B. Corbett, writing for The New York Times, “’May’ simply states the possibility or likelihood, while ‘might’ emphasizes the conditional nature of the possibility, introducing a greater level of uncertainty.” To make things more confusing, might is also the past tense form of may, indicating possibilities that occurred in the past.

Mignon Fogarty (AKA Grammar Girl) explains that may and might are modal verbs. “Modals are helping verbs that tell you more about the mood or attitude of the action verb,” writes Fogarty. “For example, you can tell that someone has a different attitude toward a party depending on the modal used. There’s a big difference between I may go, I should go, and I would go.”

5 examples:

“I may go to the concert on Friday.”

“We might not be able to raise enough money at the bake sale.”

“He might win the election after all.”

“I might have dropped my wallet in the parking lot.”

“I may need an extra blanket tonight because it’s so cold.”

Shall vs. Will

Shall has a distinctly formal flavor—at least in American English. In British English, shall is usually used with a first person subject while will belongs to third or second person subjects. In American English, will is used almost exclusively.

In British English, shall is sometimes used to show determination, as in Gandalf’s command “You shall not pass!” In American English, shall is only used in legalese, where it connotes a legally binding command, or in very polite or lofty prose.

4 examples:

“Shall we dance?”

“I shall take my tea on the veranda.”

“They will drive through Georgia on the way to Florida.”

“Will he take the LSAT this fall?”

One of the most challenging aspects of English, whether you’re a native speaker or learning it as a second language, is the way it constantly changes. Over time, usage conventions change, and it can feel as though there are more exceptions than rules.

What’s your biggest challenge with English?

About the Author: A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than ONE MILLION Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.

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Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mother_mallard_and_ducklings_eating_bread.jpg

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