"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Geoffrey Nathan geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU
Tue Dec 2 11:07:06 UTC 2008

Wilson 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"? 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!"

Many years ago I heard the late Harvey Sacks talk about why small kids say 'Mommy, you know what?' Superficially this makes no sense, and why would a 4-year-old ask such a question anyway. In the ponderous but really clever way that Conversational Analysts deconstruct conversational turn-taking he pointed out that generally kids don't get to 'run' conversations, or in general have the right to 'the floor'. However, asking a question, by virtue of the structure of what Schegloff, Sacks and Jefferson called 'adjacency pairs' gave the child the automatic right to talk. Anybody can ask a question, but not just any low status person can start talking without invitation. So asking an open-ended question gives you the floor and begins a conversation, while just beginning with the actual question would seem rude and presumptive, meaning something along the lines of 'You're my servant and you must tell me this'.


Geoffrey S. Nathan
Faculty Liaison, C&IT
and Associate Professor, Linguistics Program
+1 (313) 577-1259 (C&IT)
+1 (313) 577-8621 (English/Linguistics)

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

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