English "can" vs. "may" and Spanish "poder"


A quick review of previous questions hasn't revealed an answer to my problem, so here it is.

In English we distinguish between "Can I go swimming?" and "May I go swimming?" The first question, properly, refers to ability to swim, which may include knowing how to swim, having access to a swimming pool, being able to pay the fee for the pool, having time to do it, and so forth. The second question refers to permission, and is the form my parents always insisted on when we asked if it was OK for us to go to the pool. In fact, if we made the mistake of saying, "Can I go to the pool?" they might reply rather sarcastically, "I don't know, can you walk that far?"

In many sentences in Spanish I see some form of "poder" used to mean either "can" - am able to do something - and may - have permission to do something. So, with that understanding, "Can I swim?" and "May I swim?" would both be translated "¿Puedo nadar?"

If this has been explained elsewhere, please point me to the right thread. And if not please help!

As always, ¡muchas gracias!

updated Sep 3, 2010
posted by revmaf

4 Answers


Hi Rev Your problem has to do with the fact that can and may are Modals (there are 11 in English) and that these words do not exist in Spanish.

In my opinion Modals are one of the things that make the English language powerful and expressive.
Any English verb can be "modified" in 11 different ways by using a Modal and a base verb (infinitive without to).


Can I do it?

May I do it?

Should I do it?

Ought I to do it?

Would I do it?

Could I do it?

Must I do it?


To achieve exactly the same in Spanish may not always be possible - another way has to be found because Modals as words do not exist.

The use of Poder is one of the ways Spanish achieves this.

updated Aug 29, 2010
edited by ian-hill
posted by ian-hill

I asked a friend from Mexico this same question. She told me that the same phrase is used for both. I will be curious to see others' responses to this question.

updated Aug 23, 2010
posted by DR1960

The "can/may" issue is only an issue for English Nazi's wink, and has more to do with perceived politeness than proper usage.

If you want to be more polite in the asking, you can always say, "Por favor, permítame..." or "¿Me permites...?"

updated Aug 23, 2010
edited by wenc3
posted by wenc3
That is a bit "strong" wen - The Modals are there for a reason.
I agree that "Me permite" would probably be the nearest equivalent in this context.

Thanks for the answers - I see the problem now in terms of the usage of English modals. That clarifies my thinking considerably, and I do appreciate it!

I don't quite agree with Wen in his assessment. For those learning English, I think it is important to learn how the modal verbs are properly used, not just how they are casually used. I don't regret having parents who corrected me when I used them improperly. smile

On the other hand, as an adult, I don't go around correcting other people when they make a minor slip in English usage. That's impolite. And I think that kind of discourtesy is what Wen is referring to when he talks about "English Nazis." With a minor punctuation error, I don't point out. wink

The discussion has also illustrated for me something often mentioned on this site. Native speakers rarely think about grammar, they just learn how to use it. I know how to use English modals because I grew up speaking English, just as Spanish speakers know how to use the subjunctive correctly because they grew up speaking Spanish. That's a bit of an "ah ha!" moment for me. Thanks for the inspiration.

updated Aug 23, 2010
posted by revmaf
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