"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Sun Dec 7 00:51:58 UTC 2008

Well, no. The person asking these questions (thanks, Kate!) --

 1. May I ask you a question?
 2. May I interrupt?
 3. May I speak?

is indeed asking a question, interrupting, or speaking, BUT WITHOUT
PERMISSION -- which, indeed, is about the only way to initiate the
conversation. The asker is in essence applying for permission to open
contentful discourse, but this "application" is not the content
itself. (I'm sure there's a well-developed theory and analysis of this
type of opener, and I may even have studied it, but I can't recall
doing so, and this insta-label will do for now.) The addressee, or
askee, then has several options:

 a. granting permission, thus accepting the application and allowing
the discourse proper to begin
 b. denying permission, rejecting the application and bringing the
whole conversation to an end (or so he or she hopes)
 c. other reactions less conformant with the form of the application, such as
    i. ignoring the asker
    ii. insulting the asker, e.g., "Go to hell!"
    iii. saying something like "You already have" or "It's too late to
ask", etc.

Response type c(iii) takes the question self-referentially, as if it
were part of the contentful discourse the asker wants to initiate
rather than a formulaic application for discourse. It may be made
seriously or jokingly or snarkily, and it may be perceived as any of
those, not necessarily the same way as the askee meant it.

Mark Mandel

On Tue, Dec 2, 2008 at 10:22 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
> YES!!! YES!!! YES!!!
> That is my ONLY - got that, y'all? - ONLY point!
> Thank you for further examples of this kind of question.
> You should use the soubriquet, "Katherine The Great."
> -Wilson
> On Tue, Dec 2, 2008 at 1:44 AM, Katharine The Grate
> <katharinethegrate at comcast.net> wrote:
> > Oh, I get it!  It's like:  "May I interrupt?"  and  "May I speak?"
> > As soon as the phrase is said, it's a done deal.
> >
> > Katharine in N. California

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

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