Modal verbs for expressing permission
asking for, giving, refusing permission
|present or future||past tense|
|We use can when we give someone permission to do something:
You can bring a friend to the party if you want.
You can borrow my phone if your battery is dead.
|We use could to say that something was permitted in the past:
Many years ago you could smoke in cinemas, but now it's banned.
|We also use may for permission.
May is more formal and is used less often than can:
Passengers may take one small bag on board the plane.
|We also use was / were allowed in the past:
We had to wear a tie at school, but we were allowed to take it off in hot weather.
We use can't to say that something isn't permitted:
You can't park here – it's private property.
He can't drive my car – he doesn't have insurance.
We use couldn't / wasn't allowed to to say that something was not permitted in the past:
We couldn't cross the border without our passports.
|Must not / mustn't is also used for permission, but is more formal. It is often used on signs and in announcements:
Passengers must not speak to the driver while the bus is in motion.
|Asking for permission:
We use Can I? / Could I? / May I? to ask for permission.
1. Can is informal: Can I speak to John Wilson, please?
2. Could is more formal and polite: Could I speak to John Wilson, please?
3. May is the most formal: May I speak to John Wilson, please?
|Asking about the past:
We use was allowed to? Could you? to ask if something was permitted in the past.
Were you allowed to stay up late when you were a child?
Could you stay up late when you were a child?
Could people travel between East and West Berlin during the Cold War?
See also: Making requests in emails >>