There is a distinct difference between “may” and “can” in English. Even though they’re both used to ask a question, it’s good to know what those differences are. In this article, we’ll look at using “may I speak to” and “can I speak to” and how they work.
What Is The Difference Between “May I Speak To” And “Can I Speak To”?
“May I speak to” should be used when requesting permission to speak to somebody that you need to. It’s often regarded as the most polite variation. “Can I speak to” should be used when checking whether a person is available or ordering someone to let you speak to them.
We can go further by looking at the following definitions:
According to The Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of “may” is “used to ask or give permission.” This shows that we’re being polite and asking for permission before simply finding the person we need to speak to.
According to The Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of “can” is “to be allowed to.” We’re allowing ourselves to already talk to the person we’re interested in; however, it’s usually more of an order to ask the current listener to find the person we want.
Is “May I Speak To” Or “Can I Speak To” Used The Most?
While the two are often used in similar regard, it’s good to know the differences. One of the best ways to see the significant differences between them is by going over which one is more commonly used.
According to this graph, “can I speak to” is more common, but only just. “May I speak to” is also fairly common as a permissive verb, though both have dropped off in popularity over the last five years.
This indicates that it comes down to a decision between the two more than anything else. The simple question you have to ask yourself before using either one is whether you want to be polite with “may” or be demanding with “can.”
Generally, in more casual circumstances, you’ll find that “can I speak to” is used more often, while in more formal circumstances, “may I speak to” is the more common choice.
Most of the choice comes down to personal preference and tone for the context over anything else.
7 Examples Of How To Use “May I Speak To” In A Sentence
To help you understand the difference, we’ll include some examples of using both phases. Remember, these phrases aren’t interchangeable and are used in very different ways.
“May I speak to” is used in a more formal sense. We’re asking for somebody’s permission to know whether we can speak to somebody else or not. A simple “yes” or “no” response is usually expected here.
- Sorry to bother you, but may I speak to the boss about next week’s hours if he’s free?
- May I speak to her when she’s available? I have some important news.
- May I speak to the person in charge? I think they should have a say on this matter.
- May I speak to someone from HR? I have a problem that I believe they can help me with.
- May I speak to you for a moment? I know you’re busy, but if you’d just lend me an ear, that would be great.
- May I speak to you, or do you have somewhere to rush off to?
- Hey! May I speak to the person in charge? I’d like to offer my services.
We mostly use “may I speak to” in formal situations. That means it’s mostly common to find in the workplace or when you’re trying to be polite and introduce yourself to someone to allow you to speak to them.
As we’ve mentioned, it’s typical for people to reply with “yes” if you’re able to speak to the person you’re requesting, or “no” if you’re not allowed to or if you’re not currently able.
Usually, setting up a question like “may I speak to” encourages the other person to be kind and polite as well. They won’t feel rushed by your question and will simply be able to give you an honest response as soon as you ask for it.
7 Examples Of How To Use “Can I Speak To” In A Sentence
Now, let’s go over using “can I speak to.” This is a less formal phrase and shouldn’t be used if you’re not very familiar with the people you’re talking to. Also, many people use this phrase in a more hostile manner.
“Can I speak to” asks whether someone is available right away to talk to. It can also be used to order someone to find the person you’re specifically looking to talk with.
- Can I speak to the manager? I’m sick of hearing the same thing over and over again.
- Can I speak to him? I know he’s free.
- Can I speak to you for a minute? It won’t take long.
- Hello, can I speak to your supervisor? I have a complaint.
- Can I speak to that lady over there? She doesn’t look busy.
- Can I speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about, please?
- Can I speak to you for a second?
As you can see, “can I speak to” is more forceful in tone than “may I speak to.” We’re usually asking the person to hurry up and give us a quick answer, which again can either be “yes” or “no.”
Usually, someone will say “can I speak to” to their friends or family. If you’re in a casual conversation, they won’t mind whether you use “may” or “can,” and the two words are generally synonymous.
However, in a more formal situation (or when you don’t know who you’re speaking to), “can I speak to” is almost entirely seen as a rude question. It makes people uncomfortable, and they’ll usually refuse to let you speak to the person you’re asking for.
This is made especially apparent when a customer asks:
- Can I speak to the manager?
An employee will usually tell them that the manager is not available and that they should take their complaint somewhere else.
“Can I speak to” in this regard isn’t a very useful question. You’ll often be met with more problems than you will with solutions.
Is “May” More Formal Than “Can”?
Generally, “may” is the more formal choice.
“May” is more formal than “can” because “may” is asking for permission. It’s the more polite version of “can.”
Both words generally mean the same thing. They’re both used to start a question to ask whether someone can do something. “May” simply goes one step further and asks whether we have permission to do that thing first.
Should I Use “Could I Speak To” Or “Can I Speak To”?
What happens when we switch the word “can” to “could?” A lot of people see “could” as the slightly more polite variation, but does this hold up in practice?
“Could” and “can” are synonymous. They’re both used to mean the same thing. However, “could” is the most appropriate word to use in polite and formal situations. It takes away the abrupt nature of “can.”
While “can I speak to” sounds like an order, “could I speak to” is more of a polite request. “Could” works similar to “may” in that we’re usually asking for somebody’s permission to find out whether we’re allowed to speak to the person we want to.
Here’s a simple way for you to tell which one works best:
- Can I speak to the manager? (Seen as an order and can make an employee uncomfortable).
- Could I speak to the manager? (Asking whether the manager is available to speak to).
- May I speak to the manager? (Asking for permission for the employee to go and find the manager for a conversation).
Should I Use “Speak To” Or “Talk To”?
Knowing which verb to use is just as important as the rest of the phrase.
“Speak to” should be used in formal situations. It means you’re using your voice to talk to somebody about something. “Talk to” should be used in informal situations. However, “speak to” works in all cases and is more common to use.
Should I Use “Speak To” Or “Speak With”
While the verb is important, we can also change the preposition “to” to “with.” Does that have much of an impact on the meaning?
According to this graph, “speak to” is the most popular choice. That’s because the preposition “to” implies we’re speaking directly to a person. “With” means we’re having a discussion with them, which sometimes isn’t the effect we want to convey.
You may also like: Talk With Or Talk To: Here’s The Correct Version (+11 EXAMPLES)
What Should I Answer To “May I Speak To…”?
Finally, what do you do when someone asks you this question? Your response doesn’t have to be a difficult one.
You should answer “yes” to “may I speak to” if the person they’re asking for is available for them to speak to. You grant them permission to do so. “You should answer “no” if the person they’re asking for isn’t available. You deny them permission in this case.