« This blog | Main | Survival of the fittest. What does it mean? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


First example. Is there not, intentionally or not, something arch in the use of "may" here?

Second example. This is surely a genteelism. Better to say something like "If you'd like to leave a message, we'll call you back".

Third example. Difficult. "The Rail Passenger Council exist" would sound odd and so would "you may contact it". But if we can use the third person plural pronoun to refer to an antecedent of uncertain gender why not do the same for an antecedent of uncertain number?

Peter Harvey


I tend to agree with you on all counts, but in one and two that doesn't alter the fact that may is used for permission. Then there is John Lennon's 'You may say I'm a dreamer'(Imagine), which admittedly might be possibility, and an article in the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n06/zize01_.html) which explicitly translates the German Du darfst as You may. Both of those came up at the top of a Google search for "you may".

In the third, the meaning is clear and the question is whether a periphrasis (you may contact its members) should be required. I was merely noting. Group nouns can have both numbers but I don't recall seeing them both in the same sentence in that way before.


"Can I have a print of that?" Is it possible? Are there copies? Does the Xerox work? "You certainly may." The reply means that there are no technical difficulties and the company will not stand in the way of my giving you a copy.


Michael Lewis, in The English Verb, also notes that "may" for permission is on a fast decline, yet he also states that both "may" and "can" have always been used for permission. Lewis says that the basic semantic meaning of the two modals, whenused for permission, is as follows:

may = do you allow/permit me
can = is it allowed/permitted

Example such as these show that there may be some truth in Lewis' conclusions:

May I smoke in here = Will/Do you permit it
Can I smoke in here = Do the rules permit it

What do you think? Is there any truth in those suggested distinctions?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Follow this blog with mobile-friendly emails

  • Enter your Email:
    Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz

Buying Lavengro Books