The modal verbs can, could and may have several meanings and functions. Today I’m going to show you how you can use these modals to express permission and requests.
Asking for, Giving and Refusing Permission with Can/Could
If someone is given permission to do something, they are allowed to do it; if someone is denied permission to do something, they are not allowed to do it. You can use the modal verb ‘can’ to ask for and give/deny permission.
- (+) A: Can I ask you something? B: Yes, of course you can.
- (-) A: Can I go to the cinema with my friends, Dad? B: No, you can’t.
Negatives can often be softened with other words. For example:
- A: Can I ask you something very personal? B: No, I’m afraid you can’t.
You can also use ‘could’ to ask for permission; it is more polite than ‘can’.
- A: Could I ask you something? B: Yes, you can. (NOT … Yes, you could. / No, you couldn’t.)
Remember: Do not use ‘could’ to give or refuse permission, we use ‘can’ or ‘can’t’.
Asking for, Giving and Refusing Permission with May
‘May’ is used for permission mostly in a formal style.
- Can I leave work a bit earlier today? (more informal, casual)
- Excuse me, may I leave work a bit earlier today? (formal)
Requests with Can/Could
When you make a request, you ask someone for something or ask them to do something. The simplest way to ask for something is to say ‘Can I have…?’ You can also add the word ‘please’ to be more polite.
- A: Can I have my book back, please? B: Yes, of course you can.
- A: Can you help me lift this chair? B: Sure I can.
If you want to make your request more polite, use ‘could’.
- A: Could I have another cup of tea? B: Yes, you can. / No, you can’t. (NOT …Yes, you could.)
Other expressions for requests
Mom!! Is it OK if we go out?
Do you mind if I don’t go to your party?
Would you mind not doing that, please?
Responding to requests
– Sure, I’ll (be there in a second).
– Sure, I’d be glad to.
– Certainly yes/no.
– That’ll be fine. Thank you.
– Yes, please.
– No problem.
– Sorry. I can’t (I am busy).
– I am afraid I can’t.
– I’ll see what I can do.
– No, not at all. I don’t mind.
– I don’t mind at all.