An English tutoring column by Ralph Schatzki who would like you to join him
in the task of saving the language, step-by-step, word-by-word, one person at a time.
Can I ask you a question? Ralph Schatzki explains in this article
the uses of can and may. Saving English One Word At A Time
Can I ask you a question?
Uh, yes....you just did.
Seriously: there are a couple of issues here. The distinction between "can" and "may" is not difficult.
The first word asks whether or
not one has the ability, the second whether or not someone has permission.
For instance, if a child asks his parents for permission to stay
up, he says "May I stay up late?"
The parents, wondering if he can keep his eyes open late into the night, might answer "Yes, if you can."
Or, at a restaurant, if someone asks "Can I have the last appetizer?" a proper response might be
"Of course- but I'd like it, too."
Precision in Language
Precision in language is always advisable, of course, yet if you know what someone means to say-
whether because of common word
usage or past history or circumstance- it is often considered bad
form to act as if he means what he says: To grab the last fried zucchini off
the plate, at the
same time answering your dinner partner's question with, "Yes, but you're too late, ha-ha!"
might not get you another
dinner invitation. On the other hand, if you're dealing with someone
whom you are teaching- your child, or a student, for example- it
might be worthwhile to expound
on the distinction between different words.
"Can" Commonly Used in Classroom Scenario
It reminds me of the numerous times when students in my classroom would ask, "Can I ask you a question?"
My response was always,
"You just did." Inevitably, the next utterance would be, "Can I ask you another
question?" I would smile and chuckle and say, feigning
sheepshness, "Uh...you just did." At this point
there was always a long pause, and I could sense the student trying to figure out how
actually to get
answered the question he wanted to ask. Finally, "Can I ask two more questions?" The whole class, now,
partly because it was following along, and partly because it anticipated my response:
"Yes- you have one left."
Now, it must be pointed out that I dealt with students who were sometimes bored in the classroom, not to
mention that English was-
for most of them- their second language. I don't advise acting so pompous in
most circumstances. Know your audience! In fact, even
when dealing with students it is sometimes
inappropriate to expect too much. In the movie Avalon, there is a scene where the teacher is
the difference between "can" and "may," but a student isn't paying attention because he desperately has
to go to the bathroom.
When he asks, "Can I go to the bathroom, please," it makes for a humorous,
if uncomfortable, scene.
A proofreader, editor, author, math teacher and tutor, professional opera singer, ex-lawyer (by his own choice), sports fan, husband and
father. He has lived on both American coasts, as well as in the southwest and midwest, and overseas in Thailand for more than thirteen
years. He loves to read, write and perform, to watch sports, and to spend time with his family.
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