Children can grasp subtleties of language

February 09, 2007|by LISA PREJEAN

"Can I go to the bathroom?"

The child with the raised hand wonders why his teacher's eyes twinkle as she replies with a grin, "I don't know. Do you have the ability to go to the bathroom?"

The teacher then explains her response.

"You have my permission to go to the bathroom, so you may go."

This is probably the most widely repeated usage application of "may" and "can." It accomplishes two things. Children typically giggle at the teacher's silliness. The humor helps them remember the rule:

May is used to ask or give permission.

Can is used to show ability or power.

Most of the time, "can" is used for something that not all people are able to do.

The message of the sentence, "Johnny can throw a football now," is different from "Johnny may throw a football now."

The first sentence refers to ability. The second sentence is giving permission.


After I taught this lesson to my third-graders, one student raised her hand and asked, "May we sharpen our pencils now?"

In addition to granting her permission to sharpen her pencil, I gave her an extra sticker for immediately making a practical application of the lesson.

It is important to teach children the meaning of words and how to use them correctly so they can communicate their needs clearly.

The can/may example is not the only one that might be confusing. Many children also confuse the use of teach and learn.

Teach means to give knowledge.

Learn means to get knowledge.

Some children might be tempted to say, "My teacher learned me how to multiply," when they actually mean, "My teacher taught me how to multiply."

Three other words that can be confusing are sit, sat and set.

Sit means "to rest" or "to be seated."

"Please sit in this chair."

Sat is used to say that sitting has already happened.

"The dog sat on your hat!"

Set means "to put or place something."

"Please set your glass in the sink."

Set is followed in the sentence by an object. What is being placed? In this case, the glass is.

Children also confuse to, too and two.

Too means also, "This room is cold, too"; or too means more than enough, as in "He ate too much at the buffet."

Two means the number 2.

She will graduate in two years.

The word to can be used before an action word, as in "to jump," or when referring to a place, as in, "I went to school."

How well does your child know the usage of these words? Have him or her take this little quiz, circling the correct answers.

1. Andrew (set, sat) on the swing.
2. Mrs. Smith was amusing as she (learned, taught) us the lesson.
3. After school, Matthew showed his mother that he (may, can) put words in alphabetical order.
4. Sally is able to put words in alphabetical order, (to, too, two).
5. It is fun (to, too, two) read a good book.
6. (Can, May) I go sled riding now?
7. We will (learn, teach) the names of the new club members.


1. sat
2. taught
3. can
4. too
5. to
6. May
7. learn

At some point, the lessons need to be concluded.

The afternoon of the may/can lesson, one of my students came up to me and quietly said, "I gotta go to the bathroom."

I smiled and replied, "Go ahead."

Sometimes the message is clear enough, even without proper grammar.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. She predicts that Phil will see his shadow today. Send e-mail to her at

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