I recall at school having a teacher that used the 'may I' to correct people. The typical example was a student would say "can I come in Sir?" his standard reply was "I don't know can you?"
This has stuck with me since but I realise now that hardly anyone users 'May I" when requesting something. Is it another Americanism as TV presenters, actors and politicians all use it. Did 'Can I' become the normal. In other languages i.e. spanish they use inflection to over come the problem.
What is the teachers view on this?
Last edited by banderas; 03-Apr-2008 at 12:55. Reason: typo
I'd agree with banderas here. This isn't an issue of grammar (there is nothing "ungrammatical" about using can instead of may), it's an issue of language etiquette if you will.
Now this is a pretty subjective issue amongst English speakers.
Some will insist on the difference between using can and may, others won't. I count myself amongst the latter but would add that, while I have no problem with can I come in?, I'd personally prefer can I come in please?. You see what I mean by subjective.
The use of can over may is not an Americanism; I've encountered it routinely in the UK, Canada and elsewhere. I'd suggest it's simply a shift in language usage.
Get used to it.
Well to me may just sounds correct and polite. Think that is the problem with the language it has become lazy. Take "may I borrow you pen" compared with "can I borrow you pen" they feel different - and yes adding please. I am sure if 20 years people will just say "pen"
Yep we are definately on a slippery slope.
I still say 'may I' on many occasions. Said with the same inflection and tone of voice as 'can I', I don't feel like I am at the dinner table saying, May I be excused?
On other occasions, I say. "OK if I just use your pen for a minute?' etc
I agree with both DavidL & Daz, however, there is another side of "may", apart from "May I".
I've been involved in writing many major international contracts in the past and have used "may", "will" and " shall", with very specific meanings, on a regular basis:
"shall" indicates that the Contractor shall (i.e. must) do X.
"will" indicates what we, as the client will do (because it's what we always do in such circumstances),
"may" indicates an option where the Contractor (or we) may do A or B depending on the circumstances at the time.
PS We already know they "can", otherwise we wouldn't have awarded them the contract!
Just another slant, for others.
It's natural for one to feel that a more polite structure will sound "correct" but that doesn't make it so. There are a number of ways to ask permission; will/would/could. And of course, can and may, and one that is even more deferential than 'may', 'might.
Why don't these same teachers demand 'might' over 'may'?
The two modals feel different because they are different. That doesn't make one good and the other bad, one correct, the other incorrect. Just as in every other area of language, we don't always want the most polite form.
Life throws a lot of different scenarios at us and language has to cover thsm all. It was never a bad thing to encourage more polite forms. What was bad was the lies that were told about language.
That teacher who said, "I don't know can you?", was in essence lying for language does not, did not work the way that teacher suggested.
'can', like 'could' is used to ask permission. Not even the most pedantic prescriptivist denies the use of 'could' and yet both can and could share the same meaning; "Is it possible for me to ...". The only difference is that 'could' is more polite/deferential.
Actually 'may' [and might] says the same thing as 'can'; "Is it possible that I/for me to ..." . The reason that 'may & might' are considered more polite is that they occupy the low range of possibility whereas 'can' doesn't have a range.
So obviously, using 'may' which says "Is there a small chance that I/for me to ..." would be considered more polite/more deferential. And using 'might', which says, "Is there a tiny to small chance that I/for me to ..." is even more deferential, hence more polite.
The old prescription is/was nothing more than a bad analysis of how the modals work.
Folks. Pleass find below, the Oxford English Dictionary differentiation between the two (in bold red type):
• modal verb (3rd sing. present may; past might) 1 expressing possibility. 2 expressing permission. 3 expressing a wish or hope.
— PHRASES be that as it may nevertheless.
— USAGE When expressing or asking permission, may is regarded as more correct (and more polite) than can, so that it is better to say May we leave now? rather than Can we leave now?
The verb can should be used to express ability or capability (can he move? = is he physically able to move?; may he move? = is he allowed to move?).
— ORIGIN Old English.
Hope this helps.
Can you not see the silliness in these types of designations. I'm sure you use all these modals of permission and if someone were to tell me that Neillythere was speaking English incorrectly, I'd say that was preposterous.
Words like "regarded" and "should" merely reflect some people's opinions on how they want language to work, but that's clearly not how language works.
People who tell us that 'can' can't be used to ask permission are really not being very realistic for clearly 'can' is used much much much more than 'may' for permission. All language studies show this to be the case.
Let me give you but one example. I even know the page number 'cause I've had to refer to it a number of times recently. Can you give me a moment for I haven't memorized the quote yet?
You have to keep in mind that it took the OED until something like 1998 to let everyone know that split infinitives were okay. Sometimes they're great but other times, well, let's just say they're a wee bit stodgy.LGSWE pg 493
Despite a well-known prescription favoring may rather than can for expressing permission, may is especially rare in the sense of permission.
For those across the pond, here is the equivalent from Websters:
can - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission.
The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts.
May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts.
Effectively what they are saying is:
"Can I?" means "Am I able to?", but one's ability to do something may be dependent on not only your inate ability but someone else's permission.
Hence the interchangeability of "can" and "may" in certain circumstances.
This explanation, I believe, is better than the OED version, because it provides teachers with the logic behind the interchangeability that they can pass on to their students.