Permission and prohibition: the modals can, could & may

When asking for or giving permission, 3 modal verbs are used: can, could and may.  Although many people think that may is more polite than the other 2, all 3 are equally polite, especially if you add please.  You can ask for permission either for yourself or for someone else.  Remember that the verb after these modals is always in the simple form.

Can I please use your washroom?
Can my friend get a free sample too, please?

Could I just get my money back, please?
Could my child please stay here until I get back?

May I please have another slice of cake?
May my mother have this seat, please?

(Notice that please can go either before the simple form verb or at the end of the sentence.)

Negative permission is called prohibition.  Use can and may in the negative to indicate that someone doesn’t have permission.

You can’t park your car in my neighbor’s driveway.
Your friend cannot stay here overnight.

BUT NOTYou could not smoke in this room. (which is past ability, not prohibition)

You may not leave class early.
Your dog may not lie on the sofa.
(Note:  You cannot contract may not (mayn’t.))

Besides these 3 modals you can also ask permission with Is it alright/okay (with you) if …Do you mind if…, and Would you mind if…. 

With Is it alright/okay (with you) if and Do you mind if… always use the present simple form of the verb.

Is it alright if my friend comes with us?
Is it okay with you if I don’t stay long?

Do you mind if I close the window?
Do you mind if I sit down?

After Would you mind if…, you can use the present simple or the past simple tense, and there’s no difference in meaning.

Would you mind if I get something to eat?
Would you mind if I got something to eat?

Would you mind if I leave early?
Would you mind if I left early?

NOTE: To give permission when someone uses the expressions Do you mind if… and Would you mind if…, say, “No, not at all,” or “No, go ahead.”  Without these extra words after “No,” the listener may think you’re not giving permission.  If you don’t want to give permission, don’t just say “Yes,” but say “Yes I do” or “Yes I would.”


Brian:  Is it alright if I leave early today?  I have a job interview this afternoon.

Teacher:  Sure.  No problem.  Just remember to do your homework for tomorrow.

Brian:  Could I do it on the weekend.  I have a test in math tomorrow and I have to study.

Teacher:  You can’t skip your homework in this class.  Without practice you won’t learn as well.

Brian:  I understand, but I’ve really got a lot to do tonight.   Would you mind if I skip it this once?

Teacher:  No, not at all.  I guess one time won’t hurt.

Brian:  Thanks.


© 2013 Ambien Malecot