May I have a moment of your time to talk about the word “may” in French?
….Actually, it may take more than a moment, since “may” is one of those words that doesn’t have a single or precise French equivalent.
May I accompany you on this journey to learn about “may” in French?
The meanings of “may”
Since there isn’t a single word for “may” in French, it’s important to understand the meanings of “may” in English, in order to find their French equivalents.
Essentially, “may” has three main meanings:
• permission (May I sit here? You may.)
• probability (It may rain tomorrow. She may come to the party.)
• a wish (May God bless you, May the Force be with you, May it be so)
Each one of these is expressed with a different word or words in French.
Other meanings of “may”
….Of course, another common meaning of “may” is the month. In that case, there is an exact French equivalent! You can read more about the month of May in our article about the months in French.
And if you’re a plant fan who’s come here looking for how to say “may tree”, that would be une aubépine.
How to say “may” when talking about permission
Now, let’s talk about “may” in the sense of permission.
In English, we have the words “can” and “may”. “Can” technically is more about one’s actual capability of doing something, while “may” refers to being allowed to do something. We might use them interchangeably, but when it comes to formal occasions or times when it’s essential to be polite, we use “may” to ask for or to grant/deny permission.
In French, on the other hand, the word for “can” and the word for “may” are the same: both come from the verb pouvoir.
For instance, the sentence Maman dit que je peux aller au parc avec vous could be translated as “Mommy says I can go to the park with you” or “Mommy says I may go to the park with you”.
The same goes for the negative sense. For example: Vous pouvez vous servir du thé mais vous ne pouvez pas boire le vin de Monsieur Dupont avant son retour. (You can/may have some tea but you cannot/may not drink Monsieur Dupont’s wine before he returns.)
That’s all fine and good when it comes to general statements, but what about asking for permission? After all, in English, if you want to be very polite and/or formal, you would use “may”, but if you’re in a less formal situation, you’d use “can”.
As you might have realized by now, it doesn’t work quite the same way in French. You still have to think of “can” and “may” interchangeably, but there are some degrees of formality and politeness, even so.
There are three common ways to ask permission with “may” (pouvoir) in French:
• The super-polite “may” : Uses the verb pouvoir and inversion (and puis instead of peux with je). Example: Puis-je ouvrir la fenêtre ? (May/Might I open the window?)
• The unsure “may”: Uses Est-ce que + subject + pouvoir. Example : Est-ce que je peux ouvrir la fenêtre ? (May I open the window ?)
• The relaxed “may” : Uses intonation and the verb pouvoir. Example: Je peux ouvrir la fenêtre ? (May/Can I open the window?)
Let’s look at each one of these a little bit more in-depth.
The super-polite “may”
If you want to be super-polite when expressing “may” in French, use the verb pouvoir and inversion.
Pouvons-nous venir ce weekend ? (May/Might we come this weekend?)
Puis-je vous aider ? (May I help you?)
Note that when using inversion, puis takes the place of peux when the subject is je. Like many weird French rules, this is an aesthetic choice; the French ear doesn’t like the expected inverted form of je peux, Peux-je.
Using inversion and a form of pouvoir is an extremely formal way to ask permission. You could even consider it closer to “might” rather than “may”. It’s typically used in the customer service industry, and even then, it would probably only be used in an extremely high-end or old-fashioned place. You may also hear it said by a receptionist if you call certain businesses.
So, in the case of Puis-je ouvrir la fenêtre ? , you would hear this phrase spoken by a servant to their master; someone in the service industry to a client if the place is very formal/old-fashioned; or you might use it if, say, you’re talking to royalty.
Note that this form can also be used with other first- and third-person subjects, of course. In that case, you would just use the normal conjugation of pouvoir.
Peut-il/elle/on: Peut-elle avoir un deuxième gâteau ? (May/Might she have another cookie?)
Pouvons-nous : Pouvons-nous visiter l’appartement ce weekend ? (May/Might we visit the apartment this weekend?)
Peuvent-ils/elles : Peuvent-ils voir votre collection d’automates ? (May/Might they see your automaton collection?)
The unsure “may”
Using the formula Est-ce que + subject + pouvoir indicates a bit of uncertainty as to the response, and thus a real request for permission. That means that of these three rough equivalents to “may” in French, this form is probably the closest.
But here’s where it might get tricky for English-speakers (I know it does for me). “May” is a pretty formal word that would seem weird to use with friends or others who are close to us, or in extremely informal settings. However, since there’s no difference between “can” and “may” in French, it’s important to remember that you can use this formula with friends and family just as much as you might use it with colleagues or clients.
The issue here isn’t formality but uncertainty. The “may” comes in because this is a genuine question. If you ask someone <<Est-ce que je peux ouvrir la fenêtre ?>>, you aren’t sure that they want you to.
I actually came up with this example because it’s a sentence I use quite often as someone who’s always warm in a country where just about everyone else hates drafts. I’ve posed this question to clients, acquaintances, even my husband.
Remember that Est-ce que + subject + pouvoir as can also be used with other first- and third-person subjects.
Peut-il/elle/on: Est-ce qu’elle peut avoir un deuxième gâteau ? (May she have another cookie?)
Pouvons-nous : Est-ce que nous pouvons visiter l’appartement ce weekend ? (May we visit the apartment this weekend?)
Peuvent-ils/elles : Est-ce qu’ils peuvent voir votre collection d’automates ? (May they see your automaton collection?
The relaxed “may”
This form uses intonation. Unlike the unsure “may” (Est-ce que + subject + pouvoir), when you make a pouvoir statement a question using intonation, you’re pretty sure that whatever you’re asking is going to be okay with the person you’re talking to.
Maybe, for instance, a friend and I have been saying how stuffy a room is. I would then ask <<Je peux ouvrir la fenêtre ?>> because I’m pretty sure she’s going to say yes. I’m only asking out of politeness (that’s where the sense of “may” comes in).
Although there is a sense of politeness, this way of asking permission is usually closer to “Can I”. That also goes for its level of formality. You could use intonation with, say, your boss, but you would have to be in an office setting that isn’t extremely formal and you would have to be pretty sure that your boss wants you to do something. For instance: Je peux poser le dossier ici ? (May/Can I put the file here?)
Note that this form can be used with any first- or third-person subject.
Il/Elle/On peut: Elle peut avoir un deuxième gâteau ? (May/Can she have another cookie?)
Nous pouvons : Nous pouvons visiter l’appartement ce weekend ? (May/Can we visit the apartment this weekend?)
Ils/Elles peuvent : Ils peuvent voir votre collection d’automates ? (May/Can they see your automaton collection?)
So, which form of “may” in French should you use when asking for permission?
If you need to be super polite, use inversion with pouvoir.
If you want to be polite without coming off as stilted, the best one is Est-ce que + subject + pouvoir.
If you’re pretty certain that the person you’re talking to will say “yes”, use intonation and the verb pouvoir.
How to say “may” when talking about probability
Another meaning of “may” is expressing probability. In this case, since there’s no English equivalent for “may”, you have to think about synonyms.
With that in mind, the two most common ways to express “may” when talking about probability are peut-être and il se peut que….
You’re probably already familiar with peut-être, which is also how you say “maybe”. So, when thinking about “may” with probability in French, convert it to “maybe”.
Elle viendra peut-être à la fête demain. (She may come to the party tomorrow.)
Nous serons peut-être un peu en retard./Nous arriverons peut-être un peu en retard. (We may be a bit late.)
Je suis peut-être amoureux d’elle. (I may be in love with her. )
Ils n’aimeront peut-être pas ce tableau.(They may not like this painting.)
A note about the placement of peut-être in a sentence
Keep in mind that you can place peut-être in various places in a sentence, just as you can with “maybe”. But if you put peut-être at the beginning of a sentence in French, you have to add que. Although many phrases with que involve putting the verb that follows it in the subjunctive, peut-être que doesn’t follow that rule, since the que is more of a placeholder.
Take one of our example sentences from above: Je suis peut-être amoureux d’elle. If you wanted to change the position of peut-être and put it at the beginning of the sentence, you would do it like this: Peut-être que je suis amoureux d’elle.
You can also use inversion when putting peut-être at the beginning of a sentence. For instance, Peut-être suis-je amoureux d’elle. Note that although this is a proper, approved grammatical way to use peut-être at the start of a sentence, it’s not always used in everyday spoken French. Most French speakers would probably opt for Peut-être que je suis amoureux d’elle.
This article will give you more information about using peut-être and peut-être que in a sentence.
Now for the other common way to say “may” in French when expressing probability:
Il se peut que…
This phrase roughly translates to “It could be that…” Keeping this in mind will help you use it.
One thing to note is that, as you might have guessed from the que in this phrase, you use it with a subjunctive verb.
Il se peut qu’elle vienne à la fête demain. (She may come to the party tomorrow.)
Il se peut que nous soyons un peu en retard/Il se peut que nous arrivions avec un peu de retard. (We may be a bit late.)
Il se peut que je sois amoureux d’elle. (I may be in love with her.)
Il se peut qu’ils n’aiment pas ce tableau. (They may not like this painting.)
What’s the difference between peut-être and Il se peut que… ?
As you may be thinking, peut-être is the easier and more common choice. Il se peut que… can imply that a bit of reflection is involved. It’s also a bit more formal.
How to say “may” when talking about a wish
In English, you might hear things like “May you be happy in your new life together” or even similar phrases where “May” is left out but the idea of a wish is still present.
If you’ve ever been to a Catholic mass (or seen one on TV or in a movie), you might have heard, for instance, the phrase “The Lord be with you.”
Or maybe you’ve heard or read some powerful figure say “May it be so.”
And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve definitely heard “May the Force be with you.”
In all of these cases, that “may” wish is expressed by the word que in French. And as you might expect, especially after reading the last section of this article, that means that the verb used with it is in the subjunctive.
So here’s how to say those phrases I mentioned:
May you be happy in your new life together: Que vous soyez heureux dans cette nouvelle vie ensemble.
The Lord be with you: Que le Seigneur soit avec vous.
May the Force be with you: Que la Force soit avec vous.
This being said, keep in mind that it’s a general rule. As always with language, there are exceptions, especially with common sayings. So it’s always a good idea to check before you use a common phrase, if possible.
For instance, if you’re offering your condolences, in English you might say something like “May he rest in peace.” In French, you could say Qu’il repose en paix, but the most common way to express this is Paix à son âme.
Some common “may” phrases
Here’s how to say some common “may” phrases in French.
To Whom It May Concern: Madame, Monsieur. This is one of those rare times when a polite phrase is MUCH easier to say and write in French than in English!
come what may: quoi qu’il arrive. Example: Quoi qu’il arrive, je t’aimerai jusqu’à mon dernier jour. (Come what may, I will love you until my dying day.)
if I may (be so bold): Si je peux me permettre…. As in English, this is a very formal, somewhat old-fashioned expression. Example: Si je peux me permettre, je crois que la robe bleue vous irait mieux que la robe rose. (If I may, I believe that the blue dress would look better on you than the pink dress.)
be that as it may: quoi qu’il en soit/il n’empêche que…. Literally “whatever it may be at” and “this doesn’t stop from”, respectively. Examples: Quoi qu’il en soit, tu es toujours puni. (Be that as it may, you’re still punished.) Il n’empêche que les femmes doivent encore lutter pour l’égalité dans leurs vies sociale, professionnelle et familiale. (Be that as it may, women must still fight for equality in social, professional, and family life.)
may the best man win/may the best woman win: Que le meilleur gagne/Que la meilleure gagne. This expression is an example of the structure we looked at with “may” as a wish. Note that if there are men and women in a competition, you would still use le meilleur, since the masculine takes precedence in French.
may as well : autant + infinitif/aussi bien. Examples : Je m’ennuie chez moi ; autant aller me promener. (I’m bored at home ; may as well take a walk.) Tu pourrais aussi bien manger tout ce qui reste de la pizza, comme ça il n’y aura rien à emballer. (You may as well eat what’s left of the pizza, that way there won’t be anything to wrap up.)
You can find out how to say more phrases with “may” in French, thanks to this WordReference list.
Expressing “may” in French isn’t the easiest thing for Anglophones, but with a little luck, this article may have helped you!
Photo 1 by Joacim Bohlander on Unsplash; Photo 2 by belchonock via Depositphotos; Photo 3 by Christina Branco on Unsplash; Photo 4 by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash; Photo 5 by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash; Photo 6 byTobias Cornille on Unsplash; Photo 7 by Noah Silliman on Unsplash