In English, the word ‘may’ is generally used in two quite distinct ways:
1) to give permission:
2) to express the possibility of something happening (generally when we use ‘may’ like this, we communicate the idea that something is not very likely to happen, or we are not very sure about it):
However, in Hong Kong English, some speakers mix up these two uses of ‘may’.
Consider this sentence from a government document, for example:
You’ll notice that this passage uses the word ‘may’ twice, in two different sentences. Take a look at each one and ask yourself whether it is type (1) use of may (permission), or type 2 (possibility or likelihood).
You should have found that in the first sentence, ‘may’ is clearly a type (2) usage; the sentence could be rewritten as “To help give the right answer for you, it is possible that we will need to ask for some information from you.”
However, the second sentence is not so simple. Does it mean “it is possible that you will click on the question if you need to start over”? No, it can’t mean that. The writer is not trying to guess what the reader will do. So, does it mean “You have permission to click on the question if you need to start over”? This doesn’t really make sense either, because the writer is not in a position to give permission to the reader. What the writer simply wants to do is tell the reader about an option that is available to them. In standard English, we would simply express it in one of these ways:
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.