Merriam-Webster Logo
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Scrabble
  • Spanish Central
  • Learner's Dictionary


verbal auxiliary, \ˈmā\

Definition of may

past might play \ˈmīt\ present singular & plural may

  1. 1 a archaic :  have the ability to b :  have permission to <you may go now> :  be free to <a rug on which children may sprawl — C. E. Silberman> —used nearly interchangeably with can c —used to indicate possibility or probability <you may be right> <things you may need> ; sometimes used interchangeably with can <one of those slipups that may happen from time to time — Jessica Mitford> ; sometimes used where might would be expected <you may think from a little distance that the country was solid woods — Robert Frost>

  2. 2 —used in auxiliary function to express a wish or desire especially in prayer, imprecation, or benediction <may the best man win>

  3. 3 —used in auxiliary function expressing purpose or expectation <I laugh that I may not weep> or contingency <she'll do her duty come what may> or concession <he may be slow but he is thorough> or choice <the angler may catch them with a dip net, or he may cast a large, bare treble hook — Nelson Bryant>

  4. 4 :  shall, must —used in law where the sense, purpose, or policy requires this interpretation

Usage Discussion of may

Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts.

Origin of may

Middle English (1st & 3d singular present indicative), from Old English mæg; akin to Old High German mag (1st & 3d singular present indicative) have power, am able (infinitive magan), and perhaps to Greek mēchos means, expedient

First Known Use: before 12th century



noun \ˈmā\

Definition of may


  1. :  maiden

Origin of may

Middle English, from Old English mǣg kinsman, kinswoman, maiden

First Known Use: before 12th century


noun \ˈmā\

Simple Definition of May

  • : the fifth month of the year

Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary

Full Definition of May

  1. 1 :  the fifth month of the Gregorian calendar

  2. 2 often not capitalized :  the early vigorous blooming part of human life :  prime

  3. 3 :  the festivities of May Day

  4. 4 not capitalized a :  green or flowering branches used for May Day decorations b :  a plant that yields may: as (1) :  hawthorn (2) :  a spring-flowering spirea

Examples of may in a sentence

  1. Shakespeare called it the merry month of May.

  2. The last two Mays have been cold and rainy.

Origin of may

Middle English, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French mai, from Latin Maius, from Maia, Roman goddess

First Known Use: 12th century

Other Calendar Terms

MAY Defined for Kids


helping verb \ˈmā\

Definition of may for Students

past might \ˈmīt\ present singular and plural may

  1. 1 :  have permission to <You may go now.>

  2. 2 :  be in some degree likely to <You may be right.>

  3. 3 —used to express a wish <May the best man win.>

  4. 4 —used to express purpose <We exercise so that we may be strong.>


noun \ˈmā\

Definition of May for Students

  1. :  the fifth month of the year

History for may

The English word May came from Maius, the Latin name for the same month. The Latin name came from Maia, a Roman goddess. The ancient Romans made offerings to this goddess every first day of May.

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up may? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


marked by grandiloquent style

Get Word of the Day daily email!


Take a 3-minute break and test your skills!


Which of these is a synonym of nonplus?

soothe perplex reduce disapprove
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.