Shall vs. May — What's the Difference?
By Tayyaba Rehman — Updated on September 25, 2023
“Shall” is traditionally used to form the future tense and express determination or obligation, while “May” is used to express possibility or permission.
Difference Between Shall and May
Table of Contents
"Shall" is a modal verb traditionally used to express the future tense in the first person and to denote obligation or requirement in legal and contractual language. It can convey a sense of formality and definitiveness in certain contexts, emphasizing the inevitability or necessity of an action. For instance, in legal contexts, "shall" is used to indicate a mandatory action or duty, reflecting a sense of authority and prescription.
"May," in contrast, is another modal verb used to express possibility, probability, or permission, displaying a level of uncertainty or discretion. It often implies that the occurrence of an event is contingent upon certain conditions or the granting of permission, showing a range of possibilities rather than a definite outcome. “May” is commonly used to seek or grant permission and to indicate that something is permitted but not obligatory.
The use of "shall" and "may" in modern English, especially in informal contexts, has become more flexible. "Shall" is often replaced by "will" to denote future tense, and its use has become somewhat archaic and formal, primarily preserved in legal and contractual documents. "May" continues to be widely used to express possibility or permission, but can be replaced by "might" to express a lower probability or by "can" for permission, especially in informal speech.
While "shall" and "may" serve different grammatical and communicative functions, understanding the context and the intended meaning is crucial for their appropriate use. Their utility lies in their capacity to convey different degrees of probability, permission, obligation, or futurity, contributing to the richness and precision of the English language.
Each of these modal verbs, "shall" and "may," bring nuanced meanings to sentences, helping to convey the speaker's or writer's intentions more accurately. While their use might be subject to regional variations and shifts in contemporary usage, they remain integral parts of English language expression, aiding in the delineation of meanings and intentions.
Traditionally used to express the future tense and determination or obligation.
Used to express possibility or permission.
Deontic (related to duty or necessity)
Epistemic (related to possibility or permission)
More formal and authoritative.
Less formal and more speculative.
Often replaced by “will” in informal and modern English for future tense.
Can be replaced by “might” for lower probability or “can” for permission in informal contexts.
Predominantly in legal and contractual language.
Widely used in various contexts.
Compare with Definitions
Employed to denote inevitability or necessity of an action.
You shall respect your elders.
A modal verb used to express possibility or probability.
It may rain later today.
Utilized to express obligation or duty, especially in legal contexts.
The tenant shall pay the rent on the first day of each month.
Utilized to seek or grant permission.
May I borrow your pen?
A modal verb traditionally used to indicate the future tense in the first person.
I shall return your book tomorrow.
Indicates a range of possibilities or options available.
You may choose any color you like.
May imply a promise or offer in specific contexts.
I shall assist you with your project.
Conveys a speculative or uncertain tone.
He may be at home now.
Conveys a formal or authoritative tone, reflecting determination or command.
You shall not pass!
Can imply a wish or hope.
May your days be merry and bright.
Used before a verb to indicate the simple future tense in the first person singular or plural.
I shall sing in the choir tomorrow.
I hope that we shall win the game.
May is the fifth month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars and the third of seven months to have a length of 31 days. May is a month of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.
Used similarly to indicate determination or obligation in the second and third persons singular or plural.
(determination): You shall go to the ball!
(obligation): Citizens shall provide proof of identity.
That may be true
He may well win
Used in questions with the first person singular or plural to suggest a possible future action.
Shall I help you with that?
Shall we go out later?
Let us examine that, shall we?
Used to ask for or to give permission
May I ask a few questions?
You may confirm my identity with your Case Officer, if you wish
(obsolete) To owe.
Expressing a wish or hope
May she rest in peace
To owe; to be under obligation for.
The fifth month of the year, in the northern hemisphere usually considered the last month of spring
The full system was deployed last May
The new model makes its showroom debut in May
To be obliged; must.
A hawthorn or its blossoms.
The fifth month of the year in the Gregorian calendar. See Table at calendar.
The springtime of life; youth.
The celebration of May Day.
To be strong; to have power (over).
To be able; can.
To be able to go.
To have permission to, be allowed. Used in granting permission and in questions to make polite requests.
You may smoke outside;
May I sit there?
Expressing a present possibility; possibly.
He may be lying;
Schrödinger's cat may or may not be in the box
Expressing a wish (with present subjunctive effect).
May you win;
May the weather be sunny
Used in modesty, courtesy, or concession, or to soften a question or remark.
To gather may, or flowers in general.
To celebrate May Day.
The hawthorn bush or its blossoms.
(archaic) A maiden.
An auxiliary verb qualifying the meaning of another verb,
How may a man, said he, with idle speech,Be won to spoil the castle of his health!
For what he [the king] may do is of two kinds; what he may do as just, and what he may do as possible.
For of all sad words of tongue or penThe saddest are these: "It might have been."
Liberty; permission; allowance.
Thou mayst be no longer steward.
Contingency or liability; possibility or probability.
Though what he learns he speaks, and may advanceSome general maxims, or be right by chance.
Modesty, courtesy, or concession, or a desire to soften a question or remark.
How old may Phillis be, you ask.
Desire or wish, as in prayer, imprecation, benediction, and the like.
The fifth month of the year, containing thirty-one days.
The early part or springtime of life.
His May of youth, and bloom of lustihood.
The flowers of the hawthorn; - so called from their time of blossoming; also, the hawthorn.
The palm and may make country houses gay.
Plumes that mocked the may.
The merrymaking of May Day.
The month following April and preceding June
Thorny Eurasian shrub of small tree having dense clusters of white to scarlet flowers followed by deep red berries; established as an escape in eastern North America
Is “shall” interchangeable with “will”?
They are often used interchangeably, but traditionally, “shall” is used with the first person, and “will” with the second and third persons.
Can “may” express probability?
Yes, “may” can express varying degrees of probability or possibility.
Can “may” be used to seek permission?
Yes, “may” is often used to seek or grant permission.
Is “shall” still commonly used in modern English?
It is less common and considered more formal, often replaced by “will” for future tense in informal contexts.
Is “shall” obligatory in legal contexts?
Yes, “shall” is often used to denote obligation or mandatory actions in legal texts.
Can “may” be replaced by “can” when seeking permission?
Yes, especially in informal contexts, “can” is often used instead of “may” to seek permission.
Is “shall” more definitive than “may”?
Yes, “shall” often conveys a sense of definitiveness or obligation, whereas “may” suggests possibility or permission.
Is “may” used to express a wish?
Yes, “may” can be used to express a wish or hope for someone.
Can “may” indicate a range of options?
Yes, “may” can indicate that multiple options or possibilities are available.
Does “shall” imply a promise?
In some contexts, “shall” can imply a promise or offer.
Does the use of “shall” indicate formality?
Yes, “shall” is considered more formal and authoritative.
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Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to askdifference.com. As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.