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4. Permission: can, may, could and be allowed to


1 Asking permission

We use can, could or may to ask for permission.
Can I use your pen?
Could we borrow your ladder, please? - Well, I'm using it at the moment.
May I see the letter? - Certainly.
Could often sounds more polite than can. May is rather formal.

2 Giving and refusing permission

To give permission we use can or may (but not could).
You can wait in my office if you like.
Could I borrow your calculator? - Of course you can.
You may telephone from here. (a written notice)
May is formal and is not often used in speech.

To refuse permission we use
can't or may not (but not couldn't).
Could we picnic here? - I'm sorry. I'm afraid you can't.
Members may not bring more than two guests into the club.
We can also use must not.
Luggage must not be left unattended.

3 Talking about permission

We sometimes talk about rules made by someone else. To do this we use can, could and be allowed to.

We use can to talk about the present, and we use could for the past.
Present: Each passenger can take one bag onto the plane.
Past: In the 1920s you could drive without taking a test.
We can also use be allowed to.
Present: Passengers are allowed to take one bag onto the plane.
Future: Will I be allowed to record the interview on tape?
Past: We weren't allowed to look round the factory yesterday.

For a general permission in the past we use either could or was/were allowed to.
I could always stay/I was always allowed to stay up late as a child.
But to say that the permission resulted in a particular action, something that really happened, we use was/were allowed to (but not could).
I was allowed to leave work early yesterday.
We were allowed to go into the control room when we looked around the power station.

Compare these questions with may and be allowed to.


May I take a photo of you?
(= Will you allow it?)


Are we allowed to take photos?
( = What is the rule?)

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