Canright May Write

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Filed under: Canright Writers' Blog

Canright May Write

As a technical writer, it’s not my job to argue about which word distinctions are worth fighting for; it’s my job to write clear, concise, and helpful instructions and descriptions. And while I scratch my head often—which kind of hurts because I shave it every other day—when trying to describe and instruct via the written word, I generally follow the rule of thumb for “can” and “may”: “can” is used when referring to the physical ability to do something, and “may” is used when referring to permission to do something.When writing about software, that standby distinction we learned in grade school doesn’t provide a definitive answer. Is it “Users can click the checkbox to … ” or “Users may click the checkbox to …”? “Can” makes sense: if the checkbox is greyed out, you cannot physically click the box and make a checkmark appear. But “may” has a good argument: users are denied permission to click the checkbox; they can physically click there all they want,  but it won’t do anything, specifically make a checkmark. At Canright, we stick with “may.” We want users to know what actions they’re allowed to perform. Although it sounds like a trivial distinction, most users appreciate knowing that they have permission to perform a certain task. “Can” can make them wonder if a step is just something the software is capable of, not necessarily something they have permission to do.  Opting for “may” illustrates that users do have permission to complete the task outlined for them in the instructions. If every step is completed properly and the result is wrong, the problem isn’t on their end. Of course, the IT helpdesk rep may disagree…-Jesse