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You may have heard the argument "it's not can I go to the bathroom, it's may I."

If this is true, then any question such as "can you get me a glass of water?" could have the same argument applied to it. It's understood what is meant, but what is the grammatically correct way to phrase the question?

marked as duplicate by Mari-Lou A, FumbleFingers, choster, tchrist, anongoodnurse Jan 30 '14 at 10:19

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • Your second paragraph does not in any way follow from the first. In the first (and traditionally objectionable) case, can is being used to ask for permission; in the latter, it is being used (semi-rhetorically) to ask for ability, which is precisely what has always been the unobjectionable use of the verb. “Can you get me some water?” is not asking for permission, it's asking “Is it possible [and not too much of a bother, understood] for you to get me some water?”. If you ‘fixed’ it to “May you get me some water?”, you'd end up with sheer nonsense. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 30 '14 at 0:12
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    @ Aaron: Please make some effort to search for an existing answer here before asking. There must be dozens of questions we could close this as a dup of. – FumbleFingers Jan 30 '14 at 1:15
  • @FumbleFingers fair enough, but why is the poor chap getting downvotes? His question may already have been answered elsewhere, but it's not in itself a poor question. – Mari-Lou A Jan 30 '14 at 8:52
  • @Mari-LouA I downvoted it for its lack of both clarity and apparent research effort. – user867 Jan 31 '14 at 2:41
  • Aren't “Can/Could/Will you help me with this?” and “Can/Could/May I go to the bathroom, please?” different things? A request for the first set of questions, asking someone if they agree to do something for you, and asking (for) permission, asking someone if they agree to let you do something for the second set of questions! – user58319 Jan 31 '14 at 12:36
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It is not so much about grammar as politeness. It sounds a bit more polite to use 'may', rather than 'can', but as long as you say 'please' it doesn't much matter.

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In both the sentences you mention, both "can" and "may" are grammatically correct. This is because grammar does not concern itself with the meanings of words or sentences. What I suspect you're having trouble with is the etiquette and semantic meanings of those particular formulations, which are better explained here.

  • +1 That is a better link/answer than the one I suggested. – Mari-Lou A Jan 30 '14 at 8:49

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