This is a phrase used quite often by parents trying to teach children the difference between "can" and "may."

My mother chanted this like a mantra every time I mistakenly asked something akin to "Can I have a cookie?" or "Can I spend the night at Sarah's house?". The point being that yes, I am able to have a cookie, or make the trek to Sarah's house, but children with poor english skills are not allowed to have such treats as these. This of course traumatized me greatly, and directly influenced my choice of major.

Me: Can I go to the bathroom?
Teacher: I don't know if you can, but you may not.
Me: You know what I mean. Now can I go?
Teacher: I don't know if you can, but you may not.
Me: {screaming} Ahhhhhh! Screw you! I'm leaving! I'll be back when I'm done with my piss!

Nothing in school irritated me more than smart ass teachers, except the same insisting they were right when they weren't. Who the hell made them the ultimate authority on grammar? Just because they have possession of a bathroom pass they think they can make me jump through hoops and dance a jig? F*ck that!

I remember showing a few teachers the definition of the word can in an effort to get them to stop torturing kids with their inane rules on how one should ask to go to the restroom.


In The American HeritageĀ® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright Ā© 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company, the following usage note appears after the definitions for the word can:

Generations of grammarians and teachers have insisted that can should be used only to express the capacity to do something, and that may must be used to express permission. But children do not use can to ask permission out of a desire to be stubbornly perverse. They have learned it as an idiomatic expression from adults: After you clean your room, you can go outside and play. As part of the spoken language, this use of can is perfectly acceptable. This is especially true for negative questions, such as Can't I have the car tonight? probably because using mayn't instead of can't sounds unnatural. Nevertheless, in more formal usage the distinction between can and may still has many adherents. Only 21 percent of the Usage Panel accepts can instead of may in the sentence Can I take another week to submit the application? The heightened formality of may sometimes highlights the speaker's role in giving permission. You may leave the room when you are finished implies that permission is given by the speaker. You can leave the room when you are finished implies that permission is part of a rule or policy rather than a decision on the speaker's part. For this reason, may sees considerable use in official announcements: Students may pick up the application forms tomorrow.

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