"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Tue Dec 2 02:36:53 UTC 2008

At 12/1/2008 04:07 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:
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>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"?

Are you alive?
Are you awake?


>Asking permission to perform this action entails
>performing the action, irrespective of whether the person spoken to
>wants to grant permission.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
>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
>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. ;-)
>All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
>come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
>-Mark Twain
>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
> >
> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> > The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> >
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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