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Is It Correct to Say “How May I Help You”?

Offering assistance is a part of our day-to-day life, especially in the service industry. But do you feel strange when a customer service representative approaches you saying, “How may I help you?” Is it correct to say it, or are there other phrases that we should use instead?

It is correct to say, “How may I help you?” when offering assistance to someone. This expression means that you are available and willing to help. You commonly hear it in customer service, but you can use it in daily communication instead of “How can I help you?” to be more polite.

Keep reading to learn more about the correct usage of “How may I help you?” and its suitable alternatives.

What Does “How May I Help You” Mean?

We use “How may I help you?” when we want to offer help or assistance to someone. People use it most frequently in the service industry because it has a higher degree of politeness than the more common “How can I help you?”

To understand it better, let’s examine the meaning of the auxiliary verb “may” and differentiate it from the noun. As a noun, “may” can mean the fifth month of the Gregorian calendar or an early part of human life which we commonly refer to as “prime” (source).

As an auxiliary verb, in the past tense, “may” turns into “might” and can have several meanings (source):

IntentionExample Sentences
Showing PermissionMay I use your pen? Yes, you may.May I open my gift before Christmas? No, you may not.
Showing ProbabilityI may be seeing her later tonight.You might catch the train if you leave now.
Expressing a Desire or a WishMay you live happily.May you be safe on your long journey home.

When we ask, “How may I help you?” we ask for permission to help, assist, or guide someone. But can we also say, “How may I assist you?” What is the difference between the words “help” and “assist,” and which one is better to use with “may?”

Both of these words have a similar meaning, and their usage mainly depends on the context of the situation. When you offer “help,” you make it easier for someone to do something by offering your effort, time, or money (source).

  • Speaker 1: You have been working on this project for ages! How may I help you?
  • Speaker 2: Thanks for asking! Please help by organizing incoming statistics by date.

If you suggest “assistance,” it usually means that you are willing to do a part of the task for someone to make it easier for them (source).

  • Speaker 1: You have been working on this project for ages! How may I assist you?
  • Speaker 2: Thanks for asking! Would you sort these documents while I finish the chart?

How Do You Use “How May I Help You”?

“How may I help you?” is a polite expression you can use to offer aid. You can use it on many occasions when you are politely suggesting help.

Many people are confused about when and how it is correct to say “may”; for some, hearing “How may I help you?” may sound unnatural. There is also a certain degree of politeness that is not always appropriate. 

When Can You Use “How May I Help You”?

In addition to helping someone, one of the most common uses of this phrase is to offer assistance. For example, a volunteer may approach you at a fundraiser and ask, “How may I help you?” if you are unsure what to do or where to go.

You have probably also heard it on many occasions in the service industry when you come to the store and a salesperson asks you, “How may I help you?” They usually want to understand what you are looking for and what they can do to make it easier for you to purchase something.

Though it is more appropriate to use a casual “How can I help you” among friends and family, you can still say, “How may I help you?” semiformally. Avoid it in super casual situations because your friends will likely tease you for being formal.

How Do You Answer “How May I Help You”?

“How may I help you” is an interrogative sentence and requires a broad answer. Answering correctly requires more than saying “Yes” or “No.” It’s better to explain how a person can assist rather than asking them what they can do.

We can better understand this by looking at some examples. Imagine you are entering a store browsing for some healthy snacks. A salesperson approaches you, asking, “How may I help you?”

Your answer will depend on whether you need help or not. If you need assistance, you can say: “I am looking for some healthy snacks. Can you show me what you have available?” If you prefer not to be interrupted or bothered, you can simply say: “Thank you, I’m just browsing. I will come to you if I have questions.”

Using “How May I Help You” in a Full Sentence

“How may I help you?” is a complete sentence on its own. However, you can add more information if you want to be more specific. For example, you can say, “How may I help you complete this assignment?”

You can add any kind of information to make yourself more approachable. This works well, especially in a customer service industry where people are tired of hearing, “How may I help you?” However, adding information to your question can make your inquiry more personalized and unique.

  • How may I help you today?
  • How may I help you find what you’re looking for?
  • Good morning! I see you are looking for someone; how may I help you?

When you offer help to your coworkers, friends, and family, being more specific can make a huge difference. This way, you will show that you are paying attention and are interested in their actions.

  • How may I help you with your assignment?
  • How may I help you finish your work faster?
  • I can see that you have a lot of people waiting. How may I help you?

In both cases, adding more context helps better understand the nature of the inquiry, and it is more likely the person will reply with a broad answer.

When Not to Use “How May I Help You”

“How may I help you?” is a polite way of offering assistance and might not be appropriate in casual conversations. However, you can still use it if you want to be respectful.

When speaking with your friends and family, it might be better to use “How can I help you?” when offering assistance. “Can” is more casual and acceptable in conversational English (source).

You should also avoid asking, “How may I help you?” if you are not able to actually assist someone. For example, if you are a sales representative for a website hosting company, you should not ask, “How may I help you?” to a customer calling for technical support on a site already hosted with your company.

In such a case, the customer will have to explain their issue to you and to the actual technical support representative, which adds frustration.

What Can You Use Instead of “How May I Help You”?

You can use several options instead of “How may I help you?” For example, “How can I help you?” or “How may I assist you?” The most casual version is “What can I do for you?”

Imagine you are talking to your friend, and he mentions being overwhelmed at work. To offer assistance, you will ask, “How can I help you?” Meaning that you are able and willing to help. When you use “can,” you mean that you are physically or mentally capable of doing something (source).

If you want to be more polite, you can ask, “How may I assist you?” Customer service personnel often say this to show that they are willing to assist and do something to make it easier for you.

If you want to sound more direct, you can say, “What can I do for you?” This question implies a specific answer. A standard answer to this question is “Nothing, thanks” when you don’t want help. Or, in case you actually want assistance, it can be a broad answer related to the context, like “You can take the kids to the school for me.” 

Another common question is, “How is everything going?” To learn more about how to use it, read Is It Correct to Say “How Is Everything Going”? 

Polite Questions

You can make polite questions by adding different words to your sentences. The most common ones are modal verbs like “may,” “might,” “could,” “would,” “can,” and others. Each verb has a different degree of politeness, and you should use it in an appropriate context.

In an informal situation with your friends or family, you are more likely to ask simply, “Can you help me with this new assignment?” and the person will reply, “Yes, how can I help?” or “Yes, what can I do for you?

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In a more formal scenario, for example, at work, it is more appropriate to use “may” because it means you are asking for permission. When speaking to your superiors, you can ask, “How may I help you with this task?” meaning that you want to help and ask for their permission to participate.

Final Thoughts

“How may I help you?” is a polite way of offering assistance to someone and asking for their permission to get help. You can use it in formal and casual situations, but it is more appropriate in a formal environment.