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Is "Can I have a cup of coffee?" polite? What if I ask a store employee, "Can I have something?"

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I don't know can you? –  Sam Apr 18 '11 at 5:09
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LOL, I couldn't understand your comment until I read your answer below. –  Mohsen Apr 18 '11 at 5:21
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I'm notorious for responding to any "Can I..." questions put to me by my kids with exactly what @Sam said. "I don't know, can you?" I've gotten used to the eye rolling ;-) –  Josh Aug 21 at 18:05

7 Answers 7

up vote 18 down vote accepted

To Sam's comment, the more pedantically-minded English speakers will state that beginning a question with Can I is to question one's own ability rather than to make a request. To satisfy those people, you're better off using may:

May I have a cup of coffee?

If you want to be polite about it, add a please:

May I have a cup of coffee, please?

If you want to be especially considerate, like when you need to get some coffee from a person who's had a bad day, make the hassle of getting the coffee the focus of the request instead of the coffee itself:

Could I trouble you for a cup of coffee?

Finally, if you're familiar with the person, you can just skip the question altogether without offense:

Pass the coffee, buddy.

It's common to assume a person who's looking for coffee is suffering from caffeine withdrawal, allowing for a good deal of leniency when considering how polite the request for coffee is.

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I've heard this "corrected" since I was a child, but let's be honest here--I've never heard anyone ask for anything in everyday life using "may". It just sounds ridiculous and over-polite. –  chaiguy Apr 18 '11 at 15:53
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@Chaiguy: I use "may" all the time to ask for things. This is probably because when working in a law firm, there are considerably more people than average likely to respond with "I don't know" or similar witticisms. –  Marcin Apr 18 '11 at 16:35
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I also make requests using "may"; in addition, I was instructed that "please" should precede the object being requested. So I usually phrase a request as "May I please have...". Unless I'm suffering from caffeine withdrawal, in which case the request comes out as some variation on "May I please have a cup of coffe RIGHT NOW GODDAMIT!" –  PSU Apr 18 '11 at 17:50
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So call me a pedant, I'll stick with "may". –  ChrisO Apr 18 '11 at 19:02
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+1 for varied, illustrative examples (particularly the last one). –  msanford Apr 18 '11 at 23:34

Can has an abruptness to it that could come off sounding demanding.

Could I have a cup of coffee

or

could you help me find the beans.

would be better, and it never hurts to say please:

Could I have a cup of coffee, please? What do you mean this is a sporting goods store?

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Is "Can I have a cup of coffee?" polite? What if I tell "Can I have something?" to a seller in a shop?

Yes, it is polite. We all use the modal verbs for polite requests. 'can' is not as polite as 'could' or 'would' but it's commonly used in situations like this. 'will' is even possible. The nuances of each can depend upon a number of factors; familiarity, the degree of deference one wants to express, ... .

The notion that 'can' means "ability" in these polite request situations is the result of an old, poorly thought out prescription. Corpus studies show that 'may' is rarely used adult to adult, compared to 'can/could' for these types of polite requests.

The meaning of most polite requests using 'can/could' is "is it possible ...". It has little to nothing to do with capability or ability for a rational person wouldn't consider whether a cafe/restaurant has the ability to make someone a cup of coffee.

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Actually, I think "may" has a more polite ring to it, especially if asking apropos of nothing. –  Marcin Apr 18 '11 at 16:36
    
I am a little bit confused. If I go to Star Bucks and tell the guy over there "Can I have a something coffee?", how will he think about my request? Maybe he is not an english teacher and doesn't know anything about "old, poorly thought out prescription". What do you say when you want to have a cup of coffee? –  Mohsen Apr 18 '11 at 17:33
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@Mohsen: In a store, simply stating your preference, while not outstandingly polite, is perfectly acceptable (assuming a reasonable tone). "I'd like (to have/buy) a cup of coffee." They're trying to sell you something, you're helping them profit. –  Ben Voigt Apr 18 '11 at 20:14

He doesn't have to be an English teacher, Mohsen. All English native speakers understand these things. A real English teacher describes the language as it is, as it really works, as the vast majority of users understand and use the language.

I can't recall from The Longman Grammar of Written and Spoken English, and I don't have my copy at hand, whether 'could' was more common or 'can' was more common. What I do remember is that both were very common. The reason for that is that 'can' is a polite request. If you are concerned which to use, then opt for the more polite and as has been noted by others, add a 'please'.

These are all more than polite enough for the situation you describe:

Will you get me a ... [please]?
Would you get me a ... [please]?
I'll have a ... [please].
Can I have/get a ... [please]?
Could I have/get a ... [please]?

If you want to get really polite:

Could I have you get/bring me a ... [please]?
Could I get you to get/bring me a ... [please]?
Would you be so kind as to bring me a ... ?
I was wondering if I could have you get/bring me a ...?
I was wondering if I could get you to get/bring me a ...?

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To Sam's comment, the more pedantically-minded English speakers will state that beginning a question with Can I is to question one's own ability rather than to make a request. To satisfy those people, you're better off using may:

With respect, it would be helpful to all if those pedantically minded English speakers would avail themselves of a dictionary and for good measure, a corpus study of English.

The first would show them that can holds more than the one meaning they seem to be fixated on, ability.

The second would show that one wouldn't be better off in the sense that one would be way out of step with their language peers.

This, of course, in no suggests that may is in any way excluded from use as a way to ask permission. It most assuredly has its place in certain situations. I'm only pointing up how common it actually is in actual native speaker use.

Of course, all modal choice is largely an individually driven choice. But that choice shouldn't be influenced by inaccurate information.

Both the dictionary and the corpus studies show that there is absolutely no factual reason to satisfy pedantically minded English speakers. If you run into such a person, ask them if they can provide a reason that has some basis in reality.

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@Dan I find that italicizing words that you mean to mention rather than use sets them off more from the text, and makes it easier to read, than using '' marks. Perhaps you might edit your question in that fashion from now on? –  Uticensis Apr 19 '11 at 18:32
    
@Dan You might also find a question of mine interesting to answer, which I felt I never got a satisfactory response to: "Do serious grammarians endorse the 'Can I/May I' distinction?" –  Uticensis Apr 19 '11 at 23:04
    
@Billare: I think my response in the following might suffice for you. english.stackexchange.com/questions/22258/… –  Dan Apr 30 '11 at 23:21

This is a slightly tongue-in-cheek BE vs AE thing.

American English - Would you bring me a cup of coffee? (trying to be polite)

British English - Could you bring me a cup of coffee? (I assume that you would - so it's a simple question of do you have the capability to make coffee)

This may be the only example in the language where the AE form is more deferential than the BE!

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I strongly agree. Mostly because, after having quite a few coffees in England, I would question whether or not he has the capability to make coffee. Their tea, however, far surpasses any American swill and is, I believe, without equal. –  snumpy Apr 18 '11 at 18:13
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@snumpy - well being at the forefront of a new economic european powerhouse, Brits don't have time to waste while somebody decides if they want chocolate on their skinny soy milk mock latte and so have to settle for Nescafe instant. The Americans try and make tea but they seem to confuse warming the pot with throwing it in the harbour (which incidentally they can't even spell correctly) –  mgb Apr 18 '11 at 20:40
    
touché =) (filler) –  snumpy Apr 18 '11 at 22:18
    
@snumpy, the question whether or not he has the capability to make coffee is actually not at all rhetorical when the place insists on putting spray-can whipped cream... Italians would go nuts... –  smci Jul 15 '11 at 19:48

I am careful to be polite, and use the politer "May I" in general practice but sometimes I need to know if my unusual choice of flavors is even available and use "can" instead.

Thus while Can I..." is sometimes questioned - hopefully humorously - it is perfectly appropriate and understood in a coffee shop, because it may well be that the shop is out of a particular flavor. Politeness may be inferred from things "appropriate and understood."

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