Sample #13: Use of “May” in Policy Drafting

“May” is one of the most ambiguous terms used in policy documents. Take the “may” challenge and look at how many different meanings the modal “may” is actually used to convey in your policies.

Must, may, and should are all the product of a Parent-Child dynamic, so drafters aiming for respectful language eliminate those words altogether.

When I encounter resistance to that approach, the typical objection is that dropping “must” and “may” impedes clarity, because — according to traditional wisdom — using “must” and “may” preserves a distinction between mandatory and optional requirements.

But the truth is that while it sometimes carries that distinction, very often “may” is used in statements that are actually mandatory. Talk about confusing!

Some examples are set out below, but don’t just take my word for it. Look at your own policies and see if the use of “may” uniformly represents presenting an option to the reader.


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