May | Modal auxiliary verbs

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May is a modal auxiliary verb. There is no -s in the third person singular.

May is followed by an infinitive without to.

Questions and negatives are made without do.

May does not have infinitives (to may) or participles (maying, mayed). When necessary, we use other words.

Meaning

May is used to talk about possibility, and to ask for and give permission.

Possibility

May is used to talk about the chances of something happening.

May well is used to suggest a strong possibility.

May is not normally used in direct questions about probability.

But note that may is possible in indirect questions about probability.

May + perfect infinitive

The structure may + perfect Infinitive (have + past participle) can be used to say that it is possible that something happened or was true in the past.

May + perfect infinitive can also refer to the present or future.

Permission

May can be used to ask for permission. It is more formal than can and could.

May is used to give permission; may not is used to refuse permission and to forbid.

Must not is also used to forbid. It is stronger than may not.

May and might are not normally used to talk about permission which has already been given or refused, about freedom which people already have, or about rules and laws. Instead, we use can, could or be allowed.

May in wishes and hopes

May is used in formal expressions of wishes and hopes. May often comes at the beginning of the sentence.

Sections in this article

Modal Auxiliary Verbs
Can
May and Can: differences
Could
May
Might
Will
Would
Shall
Should
Should: other uses
Must
Must: uses
Must and have to: The Difference
Ought to
Need
Had better
Should, Ought and Must: The difference