ESL: How to Ask for, Grant and Refuse Permission

Asking for permission in English
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Asking for permission to do something takes many different forms. Perhaps you need to get permission to do something at work, or perhaps you need to ask a friend for permission to use one of her possessions, or maybe you need to ask the teacher if you can leave room for a moment or two. Remember to use polite forms when asking for permission to do something or use an object as you are ​​​asking a favor of that person.​

How to Ask for Permission in English

Can I + verb (very informal)

  • Can I go out tonight?
  • Can he have dinner with us?

NOTE: The use of "Can I do something?" is very informal, and considered incorrect by many. However, it is used in everyday informal speech and for that reason has been included.

May I + verb

  • May I have another piece of pie?
  • May we go out with our friends tonight?

NOTE: Traditionally, the use of "May I do something?" has been used for asking permission. In modern society, this form has become a little more formal and is often replaced with other forms such as "Can I..." and "Could I ..." Many argue that "Can I ..." is incorrect because it refers to ability. However, this form is quite common in everyday, spoken situations.

Could I please + verb

  • Could I please go with Tom to the movie?
  • Could we please go on trip this weekend?

Do you think I could + verb

  • Do you think I could use your cell phone?
  • Do you think I could borrow your car?

Would it be possible for me + infinitive

  • Would it be possible for me to use your computer for a few minutes?
  • Would it be possible for to study in this room?

Would you mind if I + verb in past

  • Would you mind if I stayed a few more minutes?
  • Would you mind if I took a five minute break?

Would you mind my + verb + ing + your + object

  • Would you mind my using your cellphone?
  • Would you mind my playing your piano?

How to Grant Permission in English

If you would like to say "yes" to someone who asks permission, you can give permission using these phrases. The first three are more informal, while the fourth is formal.

  • Sure.
  • No problem.
  • Go right ahead.
  • Please feel free + infinitive

How to Politely Refuse a Favor/Deny Permission

Saying 'no', is never fun, but sometimes it's necessary. See the conversations below for some examples.

  • I'm afraid I'd prefer if you didn't / don't.
  • Sorry, but I'd rather you not do that.
  • Unfortunately, I need to say no.
  • I'm afraid that's not possible.

When denying permission, people will sometimes instead offer to help in other ways, using the words "how about" and "instead" to offer alternatives.

  • I'm afraid I can't let you borrow my car, but I could drive you instead.
  • I can't babysit your daughter. How about I call my sitter for you instead? 
  • I wish I could help out; maybe another time.

Sample Dialogues for Practice: Asking for Permission Which Is Given

  • Jack: Hi Sam, do you think I could use your cell phone for a moment?
  • Sam: Sure, no problem. Here you are.
  • Jack: Thanks buddy. It will only be a minute or two.
  • Sam: Take your time. No rush.
  • Jack: Thanks!
  • Student: Would it be possible for me to have a few more minutes to review before the quiz?
  • Teacher: Please feel free to study for a few more minutes.
  • Student: Thank you very much.
  • Teacher: No problem. Do you have any questions in particular?
  • Student: Uh, no. I just need to review things quickly.
  • Teacher: OK. We'll begin in five minutes.
  • Student: Thank you.

Example Situations: Asking for Permission Which Is Denied

In this example, an employee is asking for time away from work.

  • Employee: Would you mind if I came in late to work tomorrow?
  • Boss: I'm afraid I'd prefer if you didn't.
  • Employee: Hmmm. What if I work overtime tonight?
  • Boss: Well, I really need you for the meeting tomorrow. Is there any way you can do whatever it is you need to do later.
  • Employee: If you put it that way, I'm sure I can figure something out.
  • Boss: Thanks, I appreciate it.

This example shows a father telling his son that he can't go out because of his recent academic performance.

  • Son: Dad, can I go out tonight?
  • Father: It's a school night! I'm afraid that's not possible.
  • Son: Dad, all my friends are going to the game!
  • Father: I'm sorry, son. Your grades haven't been the best recently. I'm going to have to say no.
  • Son: Ah, Dad, come on! Let me go!
  • Father: Sorry son, no is no.

Practice Situations

Find a partner and use these suggestions to practice asking for permission, as well as giving and denying permission as shown in the examples. Make sure to vary the language you use when practicing rather than using the same phrase over and over again.

  • Go out on a weekday evening with friends.
  • Use someone's car for the day.
  • Use someone's cell or smartphone.
  • Take a day or two off work.
  • Skip school for a day.
  • Play someone's piano.
  • Use someone's computer.
  • Make a copy of an article in a magazine.