"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Ann Burlingham ann at BURLINGHAMBOOKS.COM
Mon Dec 1 19:42:42 UTC 2008

On Mon, Dec 1, 2008 at 12:55 PM, Mark Mandel <thnidu at gmail.com> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Mark Mandel <thnidu at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: "Can / May I ask you a question?"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

> "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.

Exactly. It's more likely to mean "is this a good time/are you the
right person" to ask.

> 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.

I think Miss Manners would approve.

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

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