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Can vs. May vs. Might


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"Can" and "may" seem similar on the surface, but there are important differences in the meanings of these words.

"Can" refers to ability or capability. 

If someone says she can speak English, she means she has the ability to do so. 

If someone says she can juggle, likewise, she has the ability. 

"May" is asking for permission.  You may be able to speak English but you don't know if

it's appropriate to do so or if it's better to speak your native language. 

So you ask, "May I speak English here?" 

Or to use our other example, you can juggle. 

You see three apples on the kitchen counter that belong to your friend and so you ask:

"May I juggle these three apples?" 

Sometimes people will use "can" for permission in informal settings: 

"Can I juggle with these three apples?" But the proper usage is "may" when asking for permission.


"Might" is used to express a possibility that something will happen. 

If you say, "I might juggle with these three apples," you're saying that it's possible that

you will do so; you haven't yet decided.

Another example.  "I might speak English with those tourists."   

Again, you have the ability, but you have not yet decided.

More examples:

"He might go to the store to buy the laptop, but he has to find out if he can get it cheaper online."

"They might leave tomorrow on their trip.  It depends on the weather."

Can you think of some examples to illustrate the use of "can" or "may" and/or "might?"

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Nice post...

I'd also add that 'may' is normally the same as 'might' in affirmations: thus, 'I may/might go to the rowing tonight'... I believe the difference between the 2 modal verbs in affirmations is that 'might' is more of a remote possibility thant 'may' ie with 'might' there is less chance of the action taking place. Have a nice day.

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