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v. a choice to act or not, or a promise of a possibility, as distinguished from "shall" which makes it imperative. 2) in statutes, and sometimes in contracts, the word "may" must be read in context to determine if it means an act is optional or mandatory, for it may be an imperative. The same careful analysis must be made of the word "shall." Non-lawyers tend to see the word "may" and think they have a choice or are excused from complying with some statutory provision or regulation. (See: shall)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

MAY. To be permitted; to be at liberty; to have the power.
     2. Whenever a statute directs the doing of a thing for the sake of justice or the public good, the word may is the same as shall. For example, the 23 H. VI. says, the sheriff may take bail, that is construed he shall, for he is compellable to do so. Carth. 293 Salk. 609; Skin. 370.
     3. The words shall and may in general acts of the legislature or in private constitutions, are to be construed imperatively; 3. Atk. 166; but the construction of those words in a deed depends on circumstances. 3 Atk. 282. See 1 Vern. 152, case. 142 9 Porter, R. 390.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
References in periodicals archive ?
And the Lord thy God will put out those nations before thee little by little: thou mayest not consume them at once, lest the beasts of the field increase upon thee.
Henceforth, wherever thou mayest roam, My blessing, like a line of light, Is on the waters day and night, And like a beacon guards thee home.
In the Missale ad Usum Ecclesiae Sarum, (36) the new mother was covered with a veil, had prayers said over her and was then sprinkled with holy water before being led into the church by a priest saying, "Enter into the temple of God, that thou mayest have eternal life," (37) or "Thou shalt purge me, O Lord, with hyssop' (hyssop being the herb used to cleanse sacramental vessels).
enemy indeed thou mayest overcome by blows; thy invisible enemy thou
Mayest thou go and personally water some distant patch of land.
It is a revelation of the Lord of the Worlds, which the true spirit hath brought down upon thy heart, that thou mayest be [one] of the wamers, in plain Arabic speech.
One harried morning he picked up his copy of the Good Book, and his eyes fell on III John I:2: "I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." It changed in an instant his whole understanding of God.
His Angels is informed by Deuteronomy's vision of "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue, that thou mayest live" (16:20), which may depend on the notion that it is a moral imperative not to be too much at home in one's home, that a people's humanity and moral energy is best marshaled in the face of uncertainty rather than belonging and satiation.
For instance, in the passage from Tom Jones that probably inspired Sterne's blank page, Fielding invokes famous statues and paintings of great beauties, only to disclaim all these sights as representative of his beautiful Sophia: "Yet is it possible, my Friend, that thou mayest have seen all these without being able to form an exact Idea of SOPHIA: For she did not exactly resemble any of them ...
Oh, mayest Thou cast all the sins of Thy people, the house of
He had Christ's word on it: "the bargain was made, the covenant struck, and the immutability of the Persian laws are [sic] nothing to it." (43) And the covenant is incalculably more perspicuous and personal: Psalm 25:14 and Proverbs 3:32 proved to Hammond that "God's secret and his covenant, being taken for his decree, is said to be 'with them that fear him' and to be 'shewed to them,' that is, their very fearing of God is an evidence to them that they are his elect with whom he hath entered covenant." The covenant operates in plain sight by reliable rule: "thou mayest believe because he bids, ...