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At a family dinner, my 18-year-old niece asked my sister, "May you please pass the salt?" My sister said that she was impressed with her daughter's politeness, but that that particular wording was not correct. My niece said that she had been taught to say that (by whom she could not say, but probably by her father—the parents divorced years ago.)

Despite our best attempts, we were unable to convince her of the illogical nature of the "May you please" construction.

How would you explain it to her?

  • 3
    It should be "may I" and either "could you", "would you", or "might you" depending on your dialect. – Kate Gregory Jul 6 '13 at 14:49
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    There's some confusion here along several dimensions, including: (1) the various senses of may (decoded by Fillmore in his famous analysis of the sentence May we come in?); (2) indirect requests versus yes/no question forms; (3) polite versions of requests versus more polite versions of requests; and (4) deontic ("pragmatic", as Fillmore calls it) can falutes lower than deontic may, which results in overproduction of polite questions with may used as an initial politeness marker, regardless of syntax or semantics. Logic it ain't. – John Lawler Jul 6 '13 at 15:58
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    If I was trying to be that polite, I'd ditch the question entirely: "It would please me were you to pass me the salt." – AJMansfield Jul 6 '13 at 17:09
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    No, I think (from what little evidence there is, really, it's "guess") that your daughter learned a zombie rule saying something like "May is more polite than can in requests" and another rule defining "Can you please Verb Phrase" as a polite request, and added them together. Most such politeness phrases are learned by rote, and accompanied by whatever zombie rules infected one's teachers, which can be anything at all. – John Lawler Jul 7 '13 at 3:54
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    @JohnLawler and others: I love the term "zombie rule", but a more polite way to refer to what's going on here is hypercorrection. Having been taught that "Can I go now?" must be rephrased as "May I please go now?", this girl concludes that "Can you pass the salt? should be "May you please ..." It's the same phenomenon as "Me and him are going" being judged inferior to "He and I are going", leading many to conclude that "This is between me and him" should be replaced by "This is between he and I." – H Stephen Straight Jul 9 '13 at 18:55
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I think that there is possibly confusion here between may, can and would.

It is possible that she once used to say expressions like:

Can I have ...
Can I get ...

and was taught that it was more polite to use may rather than can in that context.

Although strictly, can relates to the ability to do something, whereas may concerns permission to do something, can is often used instead of may in constructs such as the above. That works acceptably in the first person: "Can/May I [do something]".

Can and may are also used interchangeably is expressions such as:

You may leave now.
You can leave now.

Although both are intended to give permission, again - strictly - the latter relates to the ability to leave (as if the person were previously locked in!).

So can and may are often interchanged when asking or giving permission, but, in your niece's case, she was doing neither: she was requesting someone else to do something. In that case, can still works, strictly meaning "Are you able to pass the salt?" (maybe the other person couldn't reach it!), although it is really being used to mean "Would you please pass the salt?". In this case, may is wrong because she is not asking or giving permission: she is making a request.

So:

may and can are used interchangeably when asking or giving permission.
would (or will) and can (or could) are used interchangeably when making a request.

[I was going to support this by referring to dictionary definitions, but @terdon's answer (with definitions) got posted while I was still writing mine, so I've omitted doing that.]

  • 2
    What about could? – Tortoise Jul 6 '13 at 22:28
  • "Would you" and "could you" border on hypercorrection of will you. – livresque Jul 10 '14 at 6:36
  • As a side note, could or would could nicely replace may in the OP's example. – Cullub May 31 '18 at 20:29
  • @Cullub Yes, I already suggested them in the third line from the bottom of my answer! But Q. was "How would you explain it?" - not what alternatives should be used. It seems implicit that OP already knew what expressions should / could be used. – TrevorD Jun 1 '18 at 22:55
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There is nothing illogical about it at all. It is just misplaced in this particular case.

May I is asking for permission while can I is asking whether an action is possible. However, as you can see in the following definitions (both come from the online Merriam Webster, can and may), this distinction between can and may seems to be in the process of becoming obsolete:

can, transitive verb
1 a : know how to
b : be physically or mentally able to
c —used to indicate possibility ; sometimes used interchangeably with may
d : be permitted by conscience or feeling to
e : be made possible or probable by circumstances to
f : be inherently able or designed to
g : be logically or axiologically able to <2 + 2 can also be written 3 + 1> h : be enabled by law, agreement, or custom to

2 : have permission to —used interchangeably with may

 

may, verbal auxiliary
a archaic : have the ability to
b : have permission to : be free to —used nearly interchangeably with can
c —used to indicate possibility or probability ; sometimes used interchangeably with can ; sometimes used where might would be expected

This was always illustrated to me by my father with the following example, which I just found out is adapted from The Hickory Limb :

Mother, can I go swimming?

Yes, my darling daughter; Hang your clothes on a hickory limb.

And don't go near the water.

In the example above, the daughter of an admittedly annoyingly literal mother, is asking whether she is physically able to go swimming, not if she has the permission to do so and the mother answers accordingly.

In the case of your niece, if you wanted to be pedantic, you could say that she is asking her mother whether she—her mother—has permission to pass the salt, while what she wanted to do is to ask her mother to please pass the salt.

  • Surely, the first line of your quotation should read "can I .." for the daughter to be "asking whether she is physically able to go swimming". – TrevorD Jul 6 '13 at 13:03
  • Hah, @TrevorD indeed it should. I had first quoted from memory (using can) and then found the actual quote that used may and blindly copy pasted assuming my father was quoting directly. Apparently he wasn't. – terdon Jul 6 '13 at 13:07
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    @StoneyB I'll take your word for it, I had no idea of the source my father (who was born in '38) loved quoting it to me (who was born in '80), that's all I know. – terdon Jul 6 '13 at 13:35
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    OK, so, she asked "My you please pass the salt." I think the please makes it illogical. What is that asking? If one is allowed to please pass something? What is "please passing"? It just doesn't make any sense to me. Also, I'd say it's illogical to use words that mean "Are you allowed to pass me the salt?" when you have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the person is allowed to and all you really want to say is "Please pass me the salt." – sarah Jul 7 '13 at 7:34
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    @sarah ah, OK, I see what you mean. I agree, the please makes it even stranger. I can sort of wriggle out of that by saying that the please is addressed as an aside to whoever can give her mother permission to pass the salt, but that really is stretching it, you're right. – terdon Jul 7 '13 at 12:59
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My explanation would be that when she says, "May you please pass the salt?" she is saying "Do you 'have permission' to please pass the salt?" Instead she should be saying, "Would you please pass the salt." which means, " 'Are you willing (it is at your discretion) to please pass the salt?"

  • 'Will', 'could', and 'can' all work. +1 for quickly honing in on the problem with the illogical phrasing, though. – lly Jun 1 '18 at 18:04

protected by Andrew Leach Mar 22 '16 at 18:41

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