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The word “may” is an expression of possibility, a permissive choice to act or not, and ordinarily implies some degree of discretion. This contrasts with the word “shall,” which is generally used to indicate a mandatory provision. As explained in this case from Texas, the word “may” in a written instrument is generally construed as permissive, but it can be interpreted as mandatory depending on the context in which it is used. Usually, only where it is necessary to give effect to the clear intention of the legislature that it can be construed in a mandatory sense.

Some common uses of the word “may” in a legal sense include:

  • In the context of statutes, cases such as this one from California, explain that “settled principles of statutory construction direct that courts ordinarily construe the word ‘may’ as permissive and the word ‘shall’ as mandatory, particularly when a single statute uses both terms.”
  • Similarly, in the context of contracts, this case from Texas, explains that “the word ‘may’ in contract means possibility, permission, liberty, or power; it does not indicate mandatory requirement.”

See also: shall

[Last updated in July of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]