"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Dec 1 23:39:56 UTC 2008

On Mon, Dec 1, 2008 at 5:59 PM, James A. Landau
<JJJRLandau at netscape.com> <JJJRLandau at netscape.com> wrote (in another
> OT:  "May I ask you a question?" is an example of a convention in English in
> which a statement or request is made politely by being indirect.  Somebody
> has probably come up with a name for this convention.  A similar convention
> was covered in ADS-L a few months ago when someone tried to interpret "I wish
> to thank..." literally, not realizing that "I wish to thank" is a conventional
> phrase implying modesty and respect on the part of the speaker.

There's extensive sociolinguistic literature on indirect requests. One
relevant paper is:

Ervin-Tripp, Susan. 1976. Is Sybil there? The structure of some
American English directives. Language in Society 5: 25-66.

--Ben Zimmer

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

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