"Can / May I ask you a question?"

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sun Nov 30 21:44:11 UTC 2008

When I held a service position - the only kind that there is in a
library, according to the American Library Association - in Widener
Library, often, patrons would ask me

"Can / May I ask you a question?"

That used to drive me *crazy*! How is it that people can have brains
so weirdly wired as not to be able to understand that, when you ask a
person whether you can ask him a question, you are, by that very act,
asking him a question, regardless of whether he is willing to allow
you to ask him a question?!! WTF?! The person asked that question has
no choice but to say yes. There's no way that he can tell someone that
has already asked him a question that he *can't* / *may'nt* ask him a
question when he's already asked him a question by asking him whether
he can ask him a question! It's a nasty trap that there's no way get
out of.

I sometimes tried to point out to people who asked me whether they
could ask me a question that they had already asked me a question by
asking me whether they could ask me a question. Hence, the person's
request for permission to do what he had already done by the very act
of requesting permission to do it was necessarily, in some sense that
i lack the knowledge to specify, WRONG! But they never understood.
They would smile and agree with me, but I knew that they were only
jollying me.

Sigh! Perhaps I'm the only person in the English-speaking world who is
bothered by this, but



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

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

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