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A question like:

May I ask if you've seen it all?

Can yield two answers:

  1. Yes, I've seen it all.
  2. Yes, you may ask.

Can you avoid this (the may-answer), remaining a tad more polite than usual?

Or is this just trying to be way too damn polite and the "may" should be dropped altogether?

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General Reference. Anyway, this isn't really about English usage at all - it's just etiquette, and the same issue arises for speakers of most if not all languages. – FumbleFingers Jul 2 '12 at 23:38
I would just ask the question. I hate "May I ask". – Ste Jul 5 '12 at 15:57
up vote 12 down vote accepted

Such a degree of politeness isn't normally required in such a question. When it is, anyone who answers it with your second alternative is being intolerably perverse, and you should dissociate yourself from such a person at the earliest opportunity.

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Yes. It would violate the rules of conversational implicature. – Colin Fine Jul 2 '12 at 20:46

I'd suggest this:

If I may ask: have you seen it all?

Here the valid answers are:

  1. No (I haven't seen it),
  2. Yes (I have seen it),
  3. No, you may not ask.

You have only one question, but retain the polite possibility that the question is out of bounds.

(Edited to correct error pointed out by @jwpat7)

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Note that "seen it at all" (your phrasing) has completely different meaning than "seen it all" (OP's phrasing). – jwpat7 Jul 3 '12 at 1:58
Thanks for the correction @jwpat7 – Fraser Orr Jul 5 '12 at 15:55

Are you asking how to respond to a question like this or how to ask it?

What you have quoted is really asking two questions at the same time. A better form might be "If I may ask, have you seen it all?". That would likely avoid the flip response "Yes you may ask" and still allow the other person to say "I'm sorry, but I'd rather not say".

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