Is the structure of this sentence "Why may standing up for a long time cause hypotension?" correct?

  • "Why may [X happen]?" isn't idiomatically common in most contexts (it's a bit dated/formal/starchy). More likely are "Why does..." or "How can...". Nov 23 '14 at 17:48
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    Why do you think it wouldn't be? Please tell us who suggested it might not be and what exactly they said. (Meta discussion) Nov 24 '14 at 0:08

It is grammatical but, in a medical scenario I would use "how" instead of "why", and "can" instead of "may". It's just that hardly anybody uses "may" in ordinary conversation (or in medical schools) in AmE.

Standing up for a long time can cause hypotension.

How can standing up for a long time cause hypotension?

Some people are prone to hypotension when they keep in the standing position for a long time. Several factors can/may cause it.

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    Possibly not in this particular context, but may is by far the most idiomatic verb to use when safeguarding against side effects: “may cause drowsiness, leprosy, exploding toes, and death”, etc. So if the subject of the sentence had been the name of some medication or other, rather than “standing up”, may would have been preferable. Nov 23 '14 at 19:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Your're right.
    – Centaurus
    Nov 23 '14 at 23:21

First, and most important,

Why may standing up for a long time cause hypotension?

is a rhetorical question. No native English speaker would ever ask it as a real information-seeking question, unless prompted by some prior statement to use that ungrammatical construction with epistemic may.

Second, if it's a rhetorical question, then the important thing is the answer, not the question.
And the answer, viz

Standing up for a long time may cause hypotension because Why.

is a normal use of epistemic may, from which the rhetoric question was crafted, via the normal rule of Wh-Question Formation. Except that the craftsman did not realize that many constructions with various epistemic and deontic modal auxiliaries are banned in some environments.

Like epistemic may, which is ungrammatical in questions.

  • This may be the place. ==> *May this be the place? ==> *Why may this be the place?

I'd normally say something like Can this be the place? or What makes you think that?, instead.

  • Is rhetorical really the right term for a question that is answered straightaway? Nov 23 '14 at 20:11
  • Forgive me for being dense, but which part of your answer is about the correctness of the sentence structure? I don't think the question is about good style. I don't object to comments about style in an answer - I do that myself, often - but I usually try to answer the main question first. If I didn't, I would only be making a comment.
    – itsbruce
    Nov 23 '14 at 21:27
  • @TimLymington Yes. Asking rhetorical questions and answering them immediately yourself is itself a rhetorical device (there is probably a name for it, which somebody more learned than I could provide). Donald Rumsfeld was notorious for it during his time as Bush's Secretary of Defense. It may have been his way of avoiding answering the question he had been asked, but it was not invalid English.
    – itsbruce
    Nov 23 '14 at 21:35
  • @itsbruce: Epistemic may is ungrammatical in questions. That means the structure of the sentence is not correct. Nov 23 '14 at 23:20
  • @JohnLawler It seems grammatical to me, though might would be better. Nov 24 '14 at 0:09

If the sentence is asking for information, I think using "might" or "could" instead of "may" would be more correct. If it is like a blog title or something, and you want it to be a grammatically correct sentence, it should be something like "Learn why standing may..." or "Find out why..." If you don't care about grammar, the trendy "BuzzFeed" way of doing it would be "Why standing may..."

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    There is absolutely nothing grammatically about "Why may standing... ?", either as a genuine question or as a rhetorical question being used as a title. Using that in a title isn't even bad style; it is established, perfectly good style.
    – itsbruce
    Nov 23 '14 at 18:22
  • Fact. It's just not common sentence structure, as per the original post.
    – rpalo
    Nov 23 '14 at 18:23
  • It is perfectly sensible. It is a rhetorical question, used to signal clearly to the audience that a particular problem (or contentious point) is going to be investigated and answered. Absolutely nothing wrong with the style. And if you think it is grammatically correct, why did you say "If you want it to be correct, it should be different"?
    – itsbruce
    Nov 23 '14 at 18:26
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    Answering qestions on about English grammar may cause altercations
    – Martin
    Nov 23 '14 at 18:42
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    The use of may in this context quite obviously has nothing to do with permission, nor does it connotate anything of the kind (might, as you suggest, is just as much about permission, only in the past tense, as may is). It expresses possibility. Nov 23 '14 at 19:20

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