Greater precision in technical writing is a frequent topic on this blog for good reason. More precise language contributes to both clarity and conciseness, the two hallmarks of the most effective technical writing. Examining the differences between apparently similar but different words, therefore, can contribute to more effective technical writing.
Here’s another example of apparently similar but different words to consider. Less effective writers often confuse can and may. Can is an auxiliary verb communicating ability or capability. May is also an auxiliary verb, but it communicates possibility, permission, or a wish.
Speakers of English often use can to communicate permission. For example, Can we go now? is considered very appropriate. But as we’ve discussed many times, spoken English and written English don’t always follow the same conventions.
In technical writing, using can to communicate permission is not precise and leads to less effective writing. Can we go now? actually asks if we have the ability or capability to leave now, which is related to and yet different from asking if we have permission to leave. May we go now? is much more precise and therefore much more effective.
The above graphic summarizes the uses of can and may that contribute to more effective technical writing. You can and may use can or may, but they’re not interchangeable. Don’t use one when the other is more effective. More precision in language makes more effective technical writing. And more effective technical writing presents you and your brands more effectively to your audience.