"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Mon Dec 1 17:55:55 UTC 2008

On Sun, Nov 30, 2008 at 11:12 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
> I'd accept Excuse me; Can / Will / Would you help me? Are you familiar
> with this library? or even Do you work here?, etc. (Widener has no
> dress code for the lower orders. Hence, there's no way to know whether
> a random person encountered in the stack is a staff member able to
> share knowledge or merely another lost soul.) *Anything* other than
> the mind-bending whatever-it-is-ness of Can / May I ask you a
> question?

I disagree. You don't answer "Excuse me" with "For what?", because
unless the person has just bumped into you, you know that this is a
formula to politely request your attention, whether to notice that you
are in their way and move, or to preface a question or request. When a
co-worker you know only casually asks "How ya doin'?" in the morning
as you're both going into the work place, you don't *tell* them how
you're doing: you say "Pretty good" or "Not bad" or "Could be worse"
or "Same old same old", or something equally brief and summative, and
not necessarily true.

"Can I ask you a question?" is a similar formula. It means "I'd like
to ask you a question, and I'm getting your attention and asking your
permission." Don't take it literally.

I used to answer, "You just did. Care to ask another?" But that made a
road bump in the discourse instead of smoothing the way, which is what
conventional formulas are meant for, and I decided I was just being a
literalist old fart. It's an idiom that has developed since our
childhood, and we'd better get with it.

Mark Mandel

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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