Mother, Can I?

Recently someone posted the attached screen shot on the internal self hosting alias.

What's wrong with this English?


It's the use of "Can" instead of "May". This happens to be one of my minor pet peeves with common English usage.  The difference between "Can" and "May" can be quite subtle and most people don't catch it.  "Can" reflects the ability to do something, "May" requests permission to do something.

To use my kids as an example, a dialog with them might go something like:

"Dad, can I go to the store?"  "Absolutely you can - it's just down the street, so it's not a big deal."

"Dad, may I go to the store?" "No you may not, without a parent accompanying you."


The first question asks if the kid asking has the ability to go to the store - of course they do, it's nearby.  The second question asks permission to go to the store.


In this dialog's case, the prompt is asking if Windows has the ability to collect more information.  Of course Windows has the ability to collect more information.  It's asking permission to collect more information, so the correct prompt should be "May Windows collect more information about this problem?".


Unfortunately I didn't notice this until yesterday, so it's too late get this fixed for Vista, but it'll be fixed in a subsequent release.  And it's going to annoy the heck out of me every time I see it (which shouldn't be that often :->).

Edit: Fixed typo pointed out by Peter Ritchie (I love the power of the edit button to make me look less stupid) 🙂

Comments (45)

  1. Peter Ritchie says:

    The problem with blog entries complaining about proper use of English is that people have the habit of pointing out errors in the English of the entry.

    "…which shouldn’t won’t be that often…"? 🙂

  2. Dave says:

    Will this problem be fixed when Vista is translated to "proper" English in the UK edition? 😉

  3. JS says:

    Of course, part of a phrase being wrong is, who says it’s wrong? It’s traditional to teach the can/may distinction to children of school age, but it’s also traditional to forget it once one is out of school. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that both "can" and "may" would be acceptable in this sentence.

  4. Jeff says:

    Actually this is grammatically correct.  "Can" has multiple definitions including both "to be able to" and "to have permission to".  "May" might less ambiguous but it also leads to an awkward connotation so I believe "Can" is the correct choice in this particular example.

  5. We, the French speakers, are very aware of this subtlety in the English language for one good reason: Can and may are the same verb in French (pouvoir). Therefore we have to learn carefully when to use one or the other. It’s actually one of the challenges during the first year of English class.

    Until of course we become proficient enough to forget about it and do the same mistake as most English speakers! 🙂

  6. Dave, that’s actually an interesting question.  It’s my belief that we don’t translate to dialects, only to major languages (and yes, you could put forward a very strong case that EN-UK is the major language while EN-US is a dialect).  This has actually been a source of some controversy.

  7. Sven Groot says:

    My pet peeve is that every version of Windows always claims to the (best|most secure|fastest) Windows ever. It’s not. It’s the best *to date*, or the best *yet*. Not the best ever. If it was the best ever, then every subsequent release will be worse!

    And don’t even get me started on the Dutch localisations of Microsoft products… they’re usually good, but sometimes just terrible. Windows Mobile 5 is the worst: spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, made-up abbreviations, inconsistent translations (things are routinely called by different names in the same dialog), different policy wrt localising special folder names than desktop Windows (in desktop Windows, My Documents is translated, but Program Files is not; in WM5, it’s reverse!), and a few completely wrong translations where it seems they just translated the resource file without even looking at the actual application.

    That’s not even mentioning the fact that WM5 Dutch has *no* handwriting recognition (not even the English one; absolutely none whatsoever) and the keyboard SIP can’t make a dollar sign.

  8. Bob says:

    So if your kid’s friends ask, "Mr. Osterman, can we go to the store," what would you say to them?  Would you give them the can/may speech?  Would you be technically correct and say yes they could, only to be liable when they took it as permission and were kidnapped or injured on the way?  Would you recognize that most use can as may and say no to them?  One of my pet peeves is the "proper" use of words even when the use is archaic and confusing … not to suggest that can/may falls into that category… yet.  Language isn’t stagnant.

  9. Of course I wouldn’t give them the lecture – that’s for my kids only – I wouldn’t bore someone elses kid with my peeves, just mine 🙂

  10. Dean Harding says:

    > I wouldn’t bore someone elses kid with my peeves, just mine 🙂

    That’s the whole reason for HAVING kids, isn’t it? 🙂

  11. Mike Dunn says:

    The can/may distinction in questions like that is going away. Don’t the Vista guidelines for text say to write in common language to make the user feel at ease? I think having "may" in that dialog would sound overly formal, which is the opposite of what the guidelines aim to achieve.

  12. Jerry Pisk says:

    Merriam-Webster on can (verb):

    Usage: Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one’s doing something may depend on another’s acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn’t is not common); cannot and can’t are usual in such contexts.

    While as a non-native English speaker I do understand the difference between being able to do something and having the permission to do something in most cases being able to do something implies having a permission. For example, a kid in school is free to ask whether he or she can go to the bathroom. Because without a permission they will not be able to excercise their ability to do so. At that point, do they really have the ability to go to the bathroom? Same applies to your children, if you do not give them permission to go to the store do they have the ability to do it? I think part of that is having the permission to do so.

  13. Alan Read says:

    Just curious, how come it is too late to fix for Vista?

  14. Norman Diamond says:

    > (which shouldn’t be that often :->).

    Here’s the may/can ambiguity in one word ^_^

    "Shouldn’t" as in "wouldn’t be proper to"?  Of course!

    "Shouldn’t" as in "isn’t likely to"?  Come on, you and I both have enough experience to know not to believe that.

  15. Vijay says:

    Testing is in safe hands when we even evaluate the grammar of the messages we provide to our users!

    I agree with what you say Larry but there are just too many words that have dual use associated with them – lists "be allowed to:" as one of the meanings of Can.

    But do blog on…cause you may 🙂

  16. Alan, it’s too late to change because it would mean changing a localized text string.  Vista is going to simulship in more than 20 languages, any changes that would/could require translation have to go out for translation and come back.  That takes time (potentially weeks), and Vista is VERY close to shipping (I’m not sure when, but it’s close).  This is the kind of Fit&Finish bug that is EXTREMELY unlikely to be fixed (and the team that owns the message has already moved it to the next milestone).

  17. Norman Diamond says:

    > Vista is VERY close to shipping

    Yup, because yet again shipping and shippable are concepts from two separate planets that aren’t on speaking terms with each other.

  18. steveg says:

    Can/May, yep they’re different, but no-one is going to make a mistake using that dialog because of the wording. And while they will be very separate resources, I’d rather the time/effort was spent on fixing whatever caused the dialog to appear in the first place.

    Just to put it out there: is this language abuse or real-time language evolution (insert mandatory intelligent design pun here).

  19. Windy says:

    Could you permit Windows collect more information about this problem?

    Would you like Windows collect more information about this problem?


    Do you need Windows collect more information about this problem?

  20. Steve Dunn says:

    I think the developers of this feature carefully chose this phrase to convey the fact that the collection of information may not actually work! 🙂

  21. benj says:

    I think there’s another, more serious problem with the phrasing of this dialog.

    If my kids ask me "Can I have an ice cream" I suggest that they ask me politely "Please can I have an ice cream" before I tell them that they may not.

    Not only does the word "please" disambiguate the word "can", it’s may also be more likely to result in a positive response due to its polite tone. Microsoft is asking if it may collect potentially private information in order to help it solve a problem. I’m sure a little politeness would be worth the screen space.

    So can – sorry – may I suggest the following: in addition to "Collect Information" and "Cancel", perhaps there should be a "Please ask me again politely" button?!! (before I press Cancel anyway…)


  22. Charlie T says:

    The thing about English is that it’s not defined by dictionaries or Dads, it’s defined by common usage. If everybody says "can" rather than "may", then "can" is perfectly correct.

    Of course, since only people with pet peeves actually care, you might as well change it to pacify the pet peeve people. 🙂

  23. zzz says:

    "can help Microsoft create a solution"

    I’m not native english speaker, is this really correct? I’d personally write that as "can help Microsoft TO create a solution"

  24. Derek says:

    To me, "can" encompasses "may".  If your son asks you if he can go to the store, and you are unwilling to grant him permission, then his ability has been stripped away.

    Similarly, I cannot walk into the oval office.  My legs work just fine, but the armed guards prevent me from doing so.  I may not, but also I cannot.  Inability needn’t be purely a result of one’s physical restrictions.

    Sven, you’re assuming that "ever" refers to both the past and the future.  This isn’t always the case. (I don’t think it’s even generally the case.)  "Never" is simply the negation of "ever", and saying "I’ve never been to China" doesn’t imply that I never will.  I’m referring to the past up to the present.  "Ever" is often used in the same way.  "This is the best meal I’ve ever eaten" does not imply that I expect to never eat a better meal in the future.

  25. Derek says:

    zzz, the "to" is often dropped.  Either is generally acceptable, though including the "to" is more formal.  It’s very similar to "that".  e.g. "He says that China is lovely."  OR "He says China is lovely."  The first is a little more formal, but either is generally acceptable.

  26. James Risto says:

    Funny … the phrase "… can xxx do yyy" sounds weird to me when the xxx is not myself. And perhaps weirder when it is not a person. Or I am going bananas. Can I go bananas? May I? 🙂

  27. James Risto says:

    Oops … I meant "… may xxx do yyy" sounds funny; can sounds "fine". 🙁

  28. Dave Steckler says:

    The OED (, can v.1.6.b lists the following definition:

    b. To be allowed to, to be given permission to; = MAY v.1 4a. colloq.

    Are you suggesting that colloquial English (or, presumably, colloquial phrases in other languages) be banned from Vista or other software?

    Have you considered the possibility that using formal English in a particular dialog (such as one where we’re asking for the user’s permission to snarf some data from their machine) may cause the user to be more likely to get scared and say, "No." I posit that in some situations, a colloquial phrase may be more "folksy" and engender a more positive response.

  29. Cody says:

    There’s a reason the IRS says "Who am I speaking to?" rather than the ‘correct’ "To whom am I speaking?"

    Charlie T:  All language is shaped by usage rather than rules.  At least, that’s what the descriptivist in me says.

    Larry:  From a logical bias, I do understand and agree with your desire for prescriptive grammar to form the basis of common speech.

  30. Alan Read says:


    Thanks for responding to my post. I am a beginner programmer, so at first I was just like "Can’t they just do a find and replace for that String?" but then I realized that you guys ship in 23,497,234 different languages 🙂 and little Strings like that probably take awhile to fix in so many languages.

  31. quan says:

    I suggest that you read about prescriptive versus descriptive linguistics.

    When required, a distinction between "can" and "may" can be made. However, in actual every-day, real English, "can" is often used to ask permission. Description dictionaries such as the OED show actual texts with this usage.

    As a historical linguist, I am very aware that languages changes. The language of Beowulf is hardly understood by native speakers of English anymore. However, that does not necessarily mean that all of modern English is wrong.

    I can understand the desire for Microsoft to produce a professionally edited product in accordance with their style guides. However, this dialog will not annoy me. In fact, I rather like how it reflects actual usage.

  32. Girish says:


    Somehow, replacing "Can" with "May" in this particular sentence doesn’t sound right to me.

    "May Windows collect more information about this problem?" – Don’t you think there is something odd about it? Usage of the first person with "May", like "May I", "May we" etc. sounds right, but "May he…", "May John…", "May Windows…"? I’m not so sure.


  33. Centaur says:

    I think localization is a red herring here. The bug being described is a bug of one particular localization — namely, the translation into US English. Hopefully, all the other localizers noticed this ambiguity at the time of translation and had the common sense to translate it as appropriate for their target languages.

  34. Centaur, it’s not a red herring.  Any change in the text has to go through the localization process – there’s no way of knowing if the Can/May choice ripples through other languages.

    We’re VERY close to shipping Vista.  Under a month away.  It is insanely hard to get changes approved currently, especially over a language lawyer nit like this one (and as you can see from the comments, arguments can be made in favor of keeping the existing language).

  35. Peter Ritchie says:

    Nit-picky? Maybe. I’d prefer that text presented to the user avoid local verbal colloquialisms in favour of proper English.  Yes, "can" and "may" are used interchangably in every-day speech for many people.  Using "May" instead of "Can" is no less understandable though.

  36. Norman Diamond says:

    Thursday, October 19, 2006 10:20 AM by Centaur

    > Hopefully, all the other localizers noticed this ambiguity at the

    > time of translation and had the common sense to translate it

    > as appropriate for their target languages.

    I saw that happen one time, but I’ve seen the opposite more often.  For example consider the following possible selections of answers.

    Paraphrasing from memory in English:

    1  I heard sound from all my speakers

    2  I didn’t hear sound from one or more of my speakers

    Paraphrasing from memory in Japanese and translating:

    1  I heard sound from all my speakers

    2  I didn’t hear sound from any of my speakers

    Fortunately it didn’t matter which language was involved because the answer was 2 in both.

    On another PC the test sounds work so the answer was 1 in both languages.

    (By the way I’m curious why sounds worked perfectly in every application except Windows Media Centre, and why sounds worked perfectly inside Windows Media Centre except for those test sounds.  Microsoft supplied the Sigmatel C-something audio driver automatically through Windows Update.  But it doesn’t really matter.  Vista’s very close to shipping, so we’ll have to see if a few service packs will make it usable.)

  37. Mikkin says:

    <The difference between "Can" and "May" can be quite subtle and most people don’t catch it.>

    As a native speaker of the English language, I can assure you that the distinction is not the least bit subtle.  Can I make multiple copies of your software?  Be assured that I can.  May I?  Rest assured that I will not.

    The colloquial abuse of _can_ to mean _may_ is but one example of a coarsening of contemporary thought.  The accelerating loss of many constructs expressive of grammatical mood indicates, to me, reification of both the speaker or author and the addressee.  Can you be a little more humane?  May you be so!

  38. Igor says:


    Even the "May Windows…" form sounds bad to me and here is why:

    "Dad, can I go to the store?"

    "I don’t know, perhaps you are too tired?"

    "Dad, may I go to the store?"

    "I don’t know, perhaps you are afraid?"

    "Dad, do you allow me to go to the store?"

    "Sure, you may go but only today."

    So IMHO it should say something like:

    "Do you want to allow Windows to collect more information about this problem?"


  39. Mikkin says:

    I would like to pick a couple of nits:

    "Can I go to the store?" – "What, are you suddenly lame?"

    "May I go to the store?" – "If you like, it’s up to you."

    "Shall I go to the store?" – "Yes, please do."

    "May" solicits permission, which is usually well enough, but "shall" is used to solicit instruction.  In particular, when proposing to take immediate action for a single instance, "shall" is more polite and deferential because the respondent initiates the action by giving instruction.

    Ok, I know Microsoft is not going to use "shall" because of the campaign to anthropomorphize (nit 1) computers through lowest common denominator colloquialism.  Such false populism (nit 2) is unfortunate because correct usage only survives while those who address large audiences continue to demonstrate its expressive utility.

  40. Bill Gordon says:

    "File under fascinating"???

    You’ve gotta be kidding yourself. Or you must have been working for too long in front of that machine.

    Replacing that text should be assigned to english teachers, not to real developers, who can’t write appropiately to humans because they are used to write to machines.

    Fascinating would be if Vista used less RAM than XP.

    Fascinating would be if it took less time to boot than XP.

    Have you ever consider that users want an operating system that is up all the time? Please have a look at:

    Maybe Microsoft should reconsider maintaining people for so long writing operating systems of the past. Real innovation comes from changing the old people who have old ideas with new people who have new ideas.

  41. Rick Schaut says:

    The number of times I heard a child in Mr. Whittemore’s class ask, "Can I go to the bathroom?"

    "I certainly hope you can," he’d say, "or you have a serious medical problem!"

  42. I’d forgotten that Rick, thanks 🙂

  43. Igor says:

    Derek said:

    e.g. "He says that China is lovely."  OR "He says China is lovely."

    How about "He says that the China is lovely"?

    How else would you know he was talking about China the country and not some girl named China?

    I am not a native speaker so I may be wrong on this one.

  44. John Miller says:

    "To use my kids as an example, a dialog with them might go something like"

    You can use one of your kids as an example or you can use your kids as examples.

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