It makes sense to just pass the salt when someone says, "can you pass the salt?", but how grammatically incorrect is that?

Are we supposed to just answer yes for that question?

This happens in various situations. For instance, even teachers say "can you find the odd one out?
1 1 1 2 1 1 " So, should one just say "yes" or should they say "2" ?

I apologise if the question is lame.

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    The second example here is more complex, with the request (that you find the answer) and the suggestion that it may be beyond your ability senses both in play. (The teacher's question is pragmatically correctly interpreted as "What is the odd one out here?") // "Can you pass the salt[?]" is a request; I'd only add the question mark if I wished to signal the question-intonation. It's a little brusque, but "Pass the salt." (which means exactly the same thing) is much more so. "Could you please pass the salt." (here, I'd omit the question mark) is perhaps the politest form of the request. – Edwin Ashworth May 26 '18 at 7:30
  • yes it is...... – JMP May 26 '18 at 8:17
  • "Can you pass the salt?" "Yes, I am able to do that." "Would you pass the salt?" "Yes, I would if you asked for it." "Please, pass the salt." "Finally, you are unambiguous!" – GEdgar May 26 '18 at 12:27
  • Communication, and the "grammar" of communication, does not need to only be verbal. People communicate in different ways. If a police officer standing at an intersection blows a whistle and holds up their hand in front of cars in one direction, almost everybody will know that they are communicating "Stop!" to the drivers of those cars. I would argue that, in terms of the dining table communication, actually passing the salt is just as grammatical as saying that you can pass the salt. (It's a demonstrative action.) Or—what if I asked verbally and somebody replied in sign language? – Jason Bassford May 26 '18 at 16:02

Literal interpretations of words can lead to confusion, for example:

Quincy: Do you know the way to the train station?

Albert: Yes.

is a very literal answer to an honest question, and not helpful at all to the questioner.

Such answering is called pedantic:

A pedant is a person who is excessively concerned with formalism, accuracy, and precision, or one who makes an ostentatious and arrogant show of learning.

which is neither right nor wrong, just annoying.

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  • You could say that Quincy was eliding and that his full question was "Do you know the way to the train staion? If so would you tell me what it is?". No wonder we use the shortened form in normal conversation! – BoldBen May 26 '18 at 9:02

Another example, where common sense is the opposite:

If I say "Do you know how to solve quadratic equations?" you could answer "Yes, I do," or you could answer "No, we haven't covered that yet." But I do not expect you to launch into an exposition of how to solve quadratic equations.

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  • It depends on context: Question 1: do you want coffee or tea? Question 2: do you want something to drink? Answer: yes. The answer is fine for question 2, but may seem pedantic for question 1 because they probably mean: which of the two do you want, if any, coffee or tea? In your case a similar question would be: can you solve this quadratic equation? Grammatically, yes would fit, but if a teacher asks a student in class they might mean for the student to solve it so the other students can see how it's done. – JJ for Transparency and Monica May 27 '18 at 1:30

Can, according to Cambridge Dictionary, is actually used to make requests (obviously, among other things):

used to request something

Their example sentences:

If you see Brett, can you tell him I'm in town next weekend?

Can you make a little less noise, please? I'm trying to work.

In answer to your question: making a request using the verb can is not ungrammatical nor uncommon.

As JonMark pointed out, responding to such a request with yes (or no) can come across as pedantic or annoying. On the one hand, I agree that might be the case , for example when you answer that on a test when expected to solve some equations or give an explanation.

On the other hand, in the example sentences by Cambridge Dictionary, yes is an appropriate response to indicate you will tell Brett or will be more quiet, respectively.

Therefore, as with many things, context is key. Respond when and how you think is appropriate in the situation you find yourself in.

Obviously, in your example your interlocutor is requesting the salt. Yes is an appropriate response provided you give it to them. Similarly, no, I can't right now, (I have my hands full) is also appropriate when you aren't able to hand it to them.

Attribution: (Definition of “can” from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)

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  • "Can you pass the salt" is an informal, if not 100% grammatical, way of asking for the salt. It will pass muster (not mustard) at most dinner tables. "Would you (please) pass me the salt" is slightly more formal and grammatical, and also polite, as is the shortened version, "Please pass me the salt." – tautophile May 27 '18 at 3:37
  • @tautophile some might say that if there's a salt shaker on the table, it's sufficiently informal to say: can you pass the salt, (please)? – JJ for Transparency and Monica May 27 '18 at 3:45

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