"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Dec 2 14:17:55 UTC 2008

At 6:07 AM -0500 12/2/08, Geoffrey Nathan wrote:
>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'.
All true & to the point, and when we grow up, we can change it to
"Guess what".  There's a thread in the sociolinguistics of gender
(starting with Pamela Fishman's work in the early 1980s) that looks
at the greater likelihood that female rather than male partners in
couples will use questions and particularly floor-obtaining questions
of exactly this type to make sure they're listened to, and the
comparison with the data from children is explicitly made.


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