“Can” vs “May”

Flash back to when I was having Exercise Wallaby at Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) in Queensland, Australia. There was a reservist in the queue at the canteen. Finally it was his turn to order his food, and he said,

“Can I have a <insert generic food item here>?”

Then he turned back, smirked, and said to his friend, “My English is not bad right…” Almost immediately, the Australian lady at the counter said, “Not really, you should have used ‘may’ as it is more polite that way.” Cue wiping off smirk look on reservist’s face, to be replaced by paiseh-ness. That incident stuck and I remembered the correct usage of “can” and “may”. Here’s their difference phrased more clearly:

We use “can” to indicate capability or possibility, e.g. “I don’t know if I can lift this piano by myself.” The implication here is on whether you have the physical capacity or mental acuity to get the piano lifted.”May” is used when you are asking permission, “May I lift your piano for a little exercise?” Here you wish the permission of someone to carry out an action.

So what got me to blog so much about the differences between these what seem to be two unimportant/insignificant words? Story has it that I was having my meal peacefully at Long John Silver (Vivocity branch) when one of their staff approached me. She asked,

May I clear the tray?”

Note that I was still munching away and there was quite a significant amount of food remaining on my tray. Still, I was slightly impressed that she used the right word and replied politely that I am still eating and would very much like to retain the tray.

“But I want to clear the tray.”

Then I realized that I didn’t have any choice at all. So much for asking for permission (the right way). Grrr~ That really pissed me off. But there was this quality about her (that is politically incorrect for me to further describe here), and therefore I let the matter rest and let her take my tray.My suggestion to Long John Silver at Vivocity and/or Long John Silver management: get more trays for each of your outlet! The restaurant wasn’t crowded at all then and it was already running out of trays? Come on…

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