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Can vs. May: Know the Difference

Shumaila Saeed
By Shumaila Saeed || Published on January 21, 2024
'Can' denotes ability or capacity, 'May' implies permission or possibility.
Can vs. May

Key Differences

'Can' is used to express ability or capacity to do something, indicating that someone has the power, skill, or means to perform an action. 'May,' however, is primarily used to express permission or to ask for permission, and it can also indicate possibility or probability.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024
When using 'can,' the focus is on the physical or mental capability of the subject. For instance, saying "I can swim" emphasizes the speaker's ability to swim. In contrast, 'may' is more about politeness and formal requests. For example, "May I leave the room?" is a polite way of asking for permission.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024
In informal contexts, 'can' is often used interchangeably with 'may' when asking for or giving permission, though this is less formal. 'May,' however, has a more formal and respectful tone, especially in written English or formal speech.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024
'Can' also has various other uses, such as in forming questions or negatives, while 'may' is more limited in its usage. 'Can' is also used to indicate possibility but in a more general sense compared to 'may,' which suggests a more specific or polite possibility.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024
Both 'can' and 'may' are modal verbs in English grammar, used to modify the meaning of the main verb in a sentence. While 'can' speaks more to ability and 'may' to permission, both play crucial roles in expressing different nuances in English communication.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024
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Comparison Chart

Primary Use

Expresses ability or capacity.
Indicates permission or possibility.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Tone

Generally informal and direct.
More formal and polite.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Context Usage

Widely used in various contexts.
Often used in formal or respectful requests.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Alternate Meaning

Can indicate general possibility.
Implies a specific or polite possibility.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Examples

"Can you help me?" (ability)
"May I use your phone?" (permission)
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024
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Can and May Definitions

Can

Used to make requests or offers.
Can you pass the salt?
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Jan 06, 2024

May

Used to ask for or give permission.
May I open the window?
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Jan 06, 2024

Can

Implies a suggestion.
You can try calling him tomorrow.
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Jan 06, 2024

May

Expresses a wish or hope.
May you have a safe journey.
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Jan 06, 2024

Can

A usually cylindrical metal container.
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Jan 05, 2024
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May

For stating a hypothesis or possibility in a formal context.
The findings may suggest a new theory.
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Jan 06, 2024

Can

An airtight container, usually made of tin-coated iron, in which foods or beverages are preserved.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

Indicates a possibility or likelihood.
It may snow tonight.
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Jan 06, 2024

Can

The contents of such a container
Ate a can of beans.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

Used in formal requests or inquiries.
May I know your name?
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 06, 2024

Can

(Slang) A jail or prison.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

A hawthorn or its blossoms.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(Slang) A toilet or restroom.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

The fifth month of the year in the Gregorian calendar. See Table at calendar.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(Slang) The buttocks.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

The springtime of life; youth.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(Slang) A naval destroyer.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

The celebration of May Day.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To seal in an airtight container for future use; preserve
Canning peaches.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

To be strong; to have power (over).
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(Slang) To make a recording of
Can the audience's applause for a TV comedy show.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

To be able; can.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To end the employment of; fire.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

To be able to go.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To put an end or stop to
Canned the TV show after one season.
Told the students to can the chatter.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

To have permission to, be allowed. Used in granting permission and in questions to make polite requests.
You may smoke outside;
May I sit there?
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

To solicit cash donations for a charity or other organization such as a club or amateur sports team by holding out a can or other container in a public place.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

Expressing a present possibility; possibly.
He may be lying;
Schrödinger's cat may or may not be in the box
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To know how to; to be able to.
She can speak English, French, and German.
I can play football.
Can you remember your fifth birthday?
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Jan 05, 2024

May

Expressing a wish (with present subjunctive effect).
May you win;
May the weather be sunny
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

May; to be permitted or enabled to.
You can go outside and play when you're finished with your homework.
Can I use your pen?
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Jan 05, 2024

May

Used in modesty, courtesy, or concession, or to soften a question or remark.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(modal auxiliary verb, defective) To have the potential to; be possible.
Can it be Friday already?
Teenagers can really try their parents' patience.
Animals can experience emotions.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

To gather may, or flowers in general.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

Used with verbs of perception.
Can you hear that?.
I can feel the baby moving inside me.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

To celebrate May Day.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

To know.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

The hawthorn bush or its blossoms.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

To seal in a can.
They canned air to sell as a novelty to tourists.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

(archaic) A maiden.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To preserve by heating and sealing in a jar or can.
They spent August canning fruit and vegetables.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

An auxiliary verb qualifying the meaning of another verb,
How may a man, said he, with idle speech,Be won to spoil the castle of his health!
For what he [the king] may do is of two kinds; what he may do as just, and what he may do as possible.
For of all sad words of tongue or penThe saddest are these: "It might have been."
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To discard, scrap or terminate (an idea, project, etc.).
He canned the whole project because he thought it would fail.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

Liberty; permission; allowance.
Thou mayst be no longer steward.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

To shut up.
Can your gob.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

Contingency or liability; possibility or probability.
Though what he learns he speaks, and may advanceSome general maxims, or be right by chance.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

To fire or dismiss an employee.
The boss canned him for speaking out.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

Modesty, courtesy, or concession, or a desire to soften a question or remark.
How old may Phillis be, you ask.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To hole the ball.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

Desire or wish, as in prayer, imprecation, benediction, and the like.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(transitive) To cover (the fuel element in a nuclear reactor) with a protective cover.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

A maiden.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

A more or less cylindrical vessel for liquids, usually of steel or aluminium, but sometimes of plastic, and with a carrying handle over the top.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

The fifth month of the year, containing thirty-one days.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

A container used to carry and dispense water for plants (a watering can).
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Jan 05, 2024

May

The early part or springtime of life.
His May of youth, and bloom of lustihood.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

A tin-plate canister, often cylindrical, for preserved foods such as fruit, meat, or fish.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

The flowers of the hawthorn; - so called from their time of blossoming; also, the hawthorn.
The palm and may make country houses gay.
Plumes that mocked the may.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

A chamber pot, now a toilet or lavatory.
Shit or get off the can.
Bob's in the can. You can wait a few minutes or just leave it with me.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

The merrymaking of May Day.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

Buttocks.
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Jan 05, 2024

May

The month following April and preceding June
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(slang) Jail or prison.
Bob's in the can. He won't be back for a few years.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

May

Thorny Eurasian shrub of small tree having dense clusters of white to scarlet flowers followed by deep red berries; established as an escape in eastern North America
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

Headphones.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(archaic) A drinking cup.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

(nautical) A cube-shaped buoy or marker used to denote a port-side lateral mark
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

A chimney pot.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

An E-meter used in Scientology auditing.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

An ounce (or sometimes, two ounces) of marijuana.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

A protective cover for the fuel element in a nuclear reactor.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

An obs. form of began, imp. & p. p. of Begin, sometimes used in old poetry. [See Gan.]
With gentle words he can faile gree.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

A drinking cup; a vessel for holding liquids.
Fill the cup and fill can,Have a rouse before the morn.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

A vessel or case of tinned iron or of sheet metal, of various forms, but usually cylindrical; as, a can of tomatoes; an oil can; a milk can.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

To preserve by putting in sealed cans
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To know; to understand.
I can rimes of Rodin Hood.
I can no Latin, quod she.
Let the priest in surplice white,That defunctive music can.
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

To be able to do; to have power or influence.
The will of Him who all things can.
For what, alas, can these my single arms?
Mæcænas and Agrippa, who can most with Cæsar.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

To be able; - followed by an infinitive without to; as, I can go, but do not wish to.
Yet he could not but acknowledge to himself that there was something calculated to impress awe, . . . in the sudden appearances and vanishings . . . of the masque
Tom felt that this was a rebuff for him, and could not but understand it as a left-handed hit at his employer.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

Airtight sealed metal container for food or drink or paint etc.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

The quantity contained in a can
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

A buoy with a round bottom and conical top
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

The fleshy part of the human body that you sit on;
He deserves a good kick in the butt
Are you going to sit on your fanny and do nothing?
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

A plumbing fixture for defecation and urination
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

A room equipped with toilet facilities
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Jan 05, 2024

Can

Preserve in a can or tin;
Tinned foods are not very tasty
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

Terminate the employment of;
The boss fired his secretary today
The company terminated 25% of its workers
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 05, 2024

Can

Indicates someone's ability to do something.
She can speak four languages fluently.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 06, 2024

Can

Denotes the possibility of something happening.
It can rain tomorrow.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 06, 2024

Can

Used informally to ask for or give permission.
Can I borrow your pen?
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 06, 2024

Repeatedly Asked Queries

Can 'may' be used for certainty?

No, it's used for possibility, not certainty.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' express ability?

No, 'may' is for permission or possibility, not ability.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' suitable for polite requests?

'Can' is used informally; 'may' is more polite.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' appropriate for academic writing?

It depends on the context; 'may' is often more formal.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' used for formal requests?

'Can' is more informal; 'may' is preferred for formal requests.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' express future possibility?

Yes, it's commonly used for future possibilities.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' used for present ability?

Yes, it's commonly used to express present abilities.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' acceptable in professional writing?

Yes, but 'may' is often more appropriate in formal contexts.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' imply a wish?

Yes, it's often used to express wishes or hopes.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' be used to express uncertainty?

Yes, it's used for uncertain or tentative statements.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' be used to offer help?

Yes, but it's less direct than using 'can.'
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' suitable for expressing wishes?

No, 'may' is more appropriate for expressing wishes.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' used in legal documents?

Rarely, as 'may' is preferred for its formality.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' used for general possibilities?

Yes, but it's less formal than 'may.'
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' indicate a lower probability than 'can'?

Yes, 'may' often suggests a lesser degree of certainty than 'can.'
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' used in hypothetical situations?

Yes, but 'may' is preferred for formal hypotheses.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' be used in questions?

Yes, especially in polite or formal inquiries.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' be used for permissions in past tense?

No, 'might have' is used for past permissions.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Can 'may' be replaced with 'might'?

Yes, 'might' is often interchangeable with 'may.'
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

Is 'can' appropriate for formal invitations?

'May' is more formal and appropriate for invitations.
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Shumaila Saeed
Jan 21, 2024

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Shumaila Saeed
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Shumaila Saeed, an expert content creator with 6 years of experience, specializes in distilling complex topics into easily digestible comparisons, shining a light on the nuances that both inform and educate readers with clarity and accuracy.

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