I want to ask :

"May I teach English to John"

but don't want to use

"Puedo enseñar Inglés Juan?"

as it seems more of a statement (puedo = I can) unless the questioning tone is noted. I want to ask permission but can't find a proper use of permite.

What is the proper way to politely ask for permission to do something?


4 Answers 4


The distinction "may / can" does not exist in Spanish. No problem, the translation is correct and sounds perfectly polite:

¿Puedo enseñar inglés a Juan?

There are other details that you should care:

  • Lower case inglés.

  • The question opens with a ¿ sign.

  • Indirect object of the sentence, if human, goes with the preposition a: "enseñar a Juan".

In Chile we prefer to add a pronoun:

¿Puedo enseñarle inglés a Juan?

  • 2
    We would also use the pronoun in Spain. The last sentence you write looks perfect to me and there is no ambiguity at all. Nobody would think that you are asking if you have the ability or the capacity to teach Juan English; you are asking for permission.
    – Gorpik
    Jan 27, 2015 at 8:01

As Rodrigo´s answer states, there is no distinction of "may / can" and would be the context the one that gives the information about if you are saying that you can do something or if you are asking for permission.

There are though other forms to ask for permission or to inquire if doing something would bother anyone in Spanish

  • Te importa/molesta + si + presenta (or que + subjuntivo)

¿Te importa si dejo esto aquí?

¿Te importa que deje esto aquí?

(Note that "te" could be changed for the third person pronoun "le" to use the "usted" form)

You could also use importar or molestar in conditional form followed by pretérito

¿Te importaría si dejase esto aquí? Te molestaría que dejase esto aquí?

  • Me permites + infinitivo (or que + subjuntivo)

¿Me permites dejar esto aquí?

¿Me permites que deje esto aquí?

(Again, you could use the third form to be more formal: "Me permite que deje esto aquí?". You could use permitir in conditional form followed by pretérito: "Me permitirías dejar esto aquí?")

  • Me das (o darías) permiso para + infinitivo (or que + subjuntivo)

¿Me das permiso para dejar esto aquí?

¿Me das permiso para que deje esto aquí?

(Again, the formal version: "Me da (o daría) permiso para ...")

So, if you want to avoid the use or "poder" (although there is nothing wrong with it) you could try any of the above combinations. Some of them would sound very formal, even in their informal version.

¿Me da permiso para enseñar inglés a Juan?

¿Le importaría si le enseño inglés a Juan?

¿Me permitiría enseñarle inglés a Juan?


I think the use of "may I" is translated into Spanish in a much more polite than Rodrigo has written.

On the one hand, the translation of May I? into Spanish would be ¿Me permite?

So I would translated your sentence in this way:

¿Me permite enseñarle inglés a Juan? (if you are talking with one single person)

¿Me permiten enseñarle inglés a Juan? (if you are talking with more than two people)

If you want to be even more polite (Might I?) you could use the conditional tense:

¿Me permitiría enseñarle inglés a Juan? (if you are talking with one single person)

¿Me permitirían enseñarle inglés a Juan? (if you are talking with more than two people)

Note that we are using the third person (Usted, ustedes) to be respectful.

Anyway, if you want to use the verb "poder" with the first person, you will be politer if you use the conditional tense because the present is quite neutral. So you can use

¿Podría enseñar inglés a Juan?

My personal opinion is the it is better to use "Me permite" because the action goes to your interlocutor, so you are indicating that the decision is enterely his.

  • OK, I read this and I noticed that my answer is incomplete. But let me correct you the latest example: ¿Podría enseñar...? is equivalent to Could I teach...?
    – Rodrigo
    Jan 23, 2015 at 16:13
  • Yes, sure. I wrote it not as a translation of May I, but as another form to be polite. From my point of view May I is more polite than Can I so it's important to make the difference in Spanish.
    – MaríaCC
    Jan 23, 2015 at 16:15

One way you could say it is

¿Me permite enseñar a Juan?

You could say another way in different words by saying

¿Está bien si yo enseño Juan inglés?

I think the second choice is a little more strict

Hope this helps!!!

  • 2
    The second one "¿Está bien si yo enseño Juan inglés?" is bad grammar. You need a preposition (you may not in English, but you have to in Spanish). "¿Está bien si yo enseño a Juan inglés?" or even better "¿Está bien si yo enseño inglés a Juan?"
    – Diego
    Jan 28, 2015 at 16:11

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