"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Dec 2 01:35:06 UTC 2008

>  > 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?
>  >

Along the same lines, consider the possible answers to "Are you awake?"

>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.

Then there's the issue of responding "Do you mind if I...?"  to which
a polite "Sure" will (hopefully) be interpreted as "Go right ahead"
rather than as a "Yes, I sure do mind".


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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list