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The phrase is bring used in our office, and while I am certain it doesn't sound right, ie shouldn't it say "Would/could/will you please give me your approval" I would like an expert to tell me why.

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  • May you or May the third person is usually used for an obtative (expressing a wish) sentence, e.g., May he/she rest in peace. May you live in peace, May you prosper, etc. If you are certain it doesn't sound right, don't use it.
    – user140086
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 3:37
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    I think a healthy alternative might be "May I please have your approval?". Alternatively, I imagine if you said "Can I please have your approval", most native English speakers would not detect anything wrong with the sentence, but some might have a problem with it. Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 3:49
  • Regarding the above statement, I'm not trying to say that "Can I please have your approval" is a correct sentence, merely that many people use it here, despite the fact that it is incorrect for most contexts. Just thought I'd say this before someone called me out for it :) Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 4:07
  • @Rathony Probably optative?
    – deadrat
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 5:19
  • @deadrat You are right. I am not good at remembering difficult words.
    – user140086
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 5:21

2 Answers 2

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When you say "May you..." or "May he/she/they...", you are expressing a wish for something to happen to the person(s) you are talking about:

May you achieve all that you have ever wanted.
May they go in peace and live long healthy lives.
May he rest in peace.

What you want to express, on the other hand, is a request that the person do something for you. "May you..." does not serve that purpose. You are correct that you can use other modals to express the idea:

Would/Could/Will you get me a cup of coffee, please?

May in the first person ("May I," "May we") can be used to express:

  • a request for permission
  • a wish for yourself/-ves (as above)

May I leave now? May we be excused? May I be as rich as Donald Trump one day. May we benefit from experience.

While native speakers generally intuit the subtleties of these usages, new learners of English find it hard to understand that a verb can have one usage with certain pronouns, but a different one with others. It's illogical, but if you ask why, the answer can only be "because English".

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As Rathony and Steven Littman have said, "May you/he/she/etc" expresses a wish.

However, the construct "May X [verb phrase such as do Y]", when addressed to some person Z, is also a request for Z to grant X permission to perform the verb phrase. For example, speaking to a teacher, "May Alex go outside?" is a request for the teacher for Alex to go outside.

When the placeholders X and Z are the same person "you", this becomes a request for someone to grant themselves permission. Your example

May you please give me your approval?

translates to a request for the person in authority to grant themselves permission to give you their approval.

The would / could / will forms don't have this weird loop of asking someone to grant themselves permission.

I don't claim to be "an expert" on the subject, but I think this is why the phrase in your title "doesn't sound right" while the would / could / will alternatives do.

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