Month: March 2019

Can I? Could I? May I?

Should you say “Can I”, “Could I”, or “May I”? Learn exactly when to use each expression to ask questions politely in English. Be confident and correct when you ask permission or make a request in different situations: informal, semi-formal, or formal. Find out how to match your question and answer with the context. These modal questions are extremely common in English, which is why this is such an important lesson. Don’t miss it!

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Next, watch this lesson about when to use “WHAT” and when to use “WHICH”:


Hi. I’m Rebecca from engVid. In this lesson I’m going to show you three simple ways that you can ask a polite question in English. Okay? Now, usually when we’re asking a question, it’s we’re asking if we can do something or we’re asking permission, or we’re asking someone else to do something for us, in which case we are requesting that they do something. All right? And there are three key words that you can use for this purpose, but in different ways. So, let’s look at what they are. All right.

So, those three words are: “can”, “could”, and “may”. Now, of course, you’ve heard those words before and I’m sure you use them as well, but let’s be really sure when to use which one. So, it’s very easy. We use “can” in more informal situations. All right? What do I mean by “informal”? For example, with your family or friends. All right? We use “could” in more semi-formal situations. “Semi-formal” means a little bit formal. For example, with your colleagues, people you work with. Right? With your hairdresser perhaps, with a salesperson in a store. All right? There we could use “could” so we kind of know that person or we don’t know that person too well, but it’s not a very formal situation. And the last is in formal situations when we use “may”. So, what’s a “formal situation”? Well, for example, if you’re talking to a client, or a customer, or you’re at an interview, then you want to be on your best behaviour, use your best manners, be very polite, be very formal and proper, and that’s when we use “may”.

Now, there is a little difference in terms of the grammar of how we use these three words. So, with “can” and “could”, we can use those two with all of the pronouns. So, we can say: “can I”, “can you”, “can we”, “could they”, “could he”, “could she”, “could it”. All right? Can use those with all of the pronouns. But when we come to “may”, we can only use it with “I” or “we”. All right? “May I do this?” or “May we” – you can’t really ask permission for somebody else so much, so this is… These are the two ways we use “May”. All right? Sometimes you might hear it with one or two other pronouns, but really, these are the most common. All right? So that’s what you want to be able to use so you can always be 100% right.

Now, let’s look at the same question and how it’s different with the three words. All right? So, let’s say I’m at home and I ask someone from my family: “Can I have some orange juice?” All right? So, there I’m using “can” because it’s really informal. Now let’s say I’m at the mall, I’m at the food court and I’m ordering some juice, so I say: “Could I have some orange juice?” All right? Slightly more formal. And now let’s pretend that we’re in a fancy restaurant and I’m ordering orange juice, so then I say: “May I have some orange juice?” Okay? Now, you could add the word “please” also, but with some of these it’s already very polite, so you don’t have to go overboard, you don’t have to do too much, you don’t have to always say “please”, especially when you’re asking for yourself. Okay? If you’re requesting something that someone else do, then often we do add the “please” as well. Okay?

Now, what are some of the responses? We’re not really focusing on the responses in this lesson, but let me just tell you what would be the appropriate responses-positive responses and negative responses-to these questions. So, if someone said: “Can I have some orange juice?”-informal-the answer might be: “Sure, here you go.” Or: -“Could I have some orange juice?” -“Yes, of course.” -“May I have some orange juice?” -“Certainly.” Okay? So you see that the formality of the question matches the formality of the answer.

If it was negative: -“Can I…?” -“Sorry, we’re all out.” -“Could I…?” -“I’m sorry, we’re all out.” -“May I…?” -“I’m afraid we’re all out.” Okay? Same basic information, but represented quite differently. So now let’s look at some more examples.

All right. So, informally, we could say: “Can I help you wash the dishes?” That would be a really nice thing to say to someone. Okay. All right. Or: “Can you clear the table, please?” Now, you see here because I’m requesting something of someone else, it’s perfectly nice and fine to say “please” at the end. Okay? “Can you clear the table, please?” What does that mean: “Clear the table”? […]


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