"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Mon Dec 1 21:20:13 UTC 2008

On Mon, Dec 1, 2008 at 4:07 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
> All that's good, Mark. But what you say is rather beside the point.
> Off the top of your head, can you come up with any other yes-no
> question in English which *necessarily* precludes even the theoretical
> possibility that the person spoken to can exercise his God-given right
> to answer "No"?

Outside a rest room: "Is there anyone in there?"

> Asking permission to perform this action entails
> performing the action, irrespective of whether the person spoken to
> wants to grant permission.

Would you prefer "May I ask you a substantive question?"?

> I find that mind-bending! If someone were to
> ask the perhaps somewhat more-threatening version, "May I question
> you?", the person spoken to can easily, if he has the 'nads, answer,
> "Damn the consequences! I say 'No!', sir! I deny you your
> ignorant-arsed request! My desire not to be annoyed trumps your desire
> to annoy me!"
> But yes, I do understand the point that that characteristic of (only?)
> this yes-no question may fail to fire the imaginations of younger but
> more-learned members of our little community, given that, in the real
> world, people freely give a negative answer to this question, as they
> will:
> A) May I ask you a question?
> B) No.
> A) All right. Fuck you, then.
> AFAIK, there's no other such question in English that falls so
> trippingly from the tongue as "Can / May I ask you a question?"
> Someone may be able to construct another such, but IMO, it'll take
> some effort, if it can even be done. Indeed, is it possible to ask
> this question in this form in any human language without eliminating
> the possibility of "No" as the answer, even though it's a yes-no
> question?
> And would you really be snarky enough to answer a polite "Excuse me"
> with a snotty "For what?" Mark, you know that that's not you! Well, I
> guess that you could smile and use a pleasant tone of voice tending
> toward gallantry without being offensive. ;-)

Of course not. I sometimes *do* reply politely "Not at all!" --
meaning, and taken to mean, "It's no trouble at all (and so I don't
feel that you've done anything that requires any kind of apology).

But my point was that we shouldn't take literally that which is not
meant literally. How do you feel about indirect speech acts like "Can
you pass the butter?" or (from one's spouse) "I think someone's at the
door"? I don't recommend replying, respectively, "Yes" (and not doing
so), or especially "Yes, I think you're right" and not moving.


> 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?"
> > -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > 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

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