Posted by: Jack Henry | April 16, 2014

Editor’s Corner: May you please…

Dear Editrix,

I have a co-worker who uses the term “may you please” when she is asking me if I will do something or if I can do something. I really don’t know what to tell her besides, “That’s incorrect!” Here are some examples of things she might write:

· “I am attaching the file; may you please confirm that you received it?”

· “May you please send the information to this address?”

Sincerely, Flummoxed in Freemont

Dear Flummoxed,

I have never heard anyone use that phrasing, but my first thought is that the person’s first language is something other than English. My second thought is that they are trying to be polite.

After doing a little research, it seems that this is a common mistake for people learning English. As most of us do when we are learning a language, we try to identify patterns. When it comes to modal verbs (such as can, may, might, shall, will, etc.), some of those patterns go out of the window.

To start with, modal (or auxiliary) verbs deal with things such as possibility, permission, and obligation, which can be difficult on a language level and on a social level. For example, compare the level of formality among these phrases:

· Would you like to play a game?

· Shall we play a game?

· Do you want to play a game?

· Might we play a game?

They are all grammatically correct, but they all have a different “flavor.” If someone came at you with the verb “shall,” you might think he or she was getting a bit fancy. J

Additionally, as Wikipedia describes modal verbs, “They can be distinguished from other verbs by their defectiveness (they do not have participle or infinitive forms)…” That’s right: there’s no such thing as “to can,” “to will,” or “to may,” like there is with other verbs (e.g., to write, to be, to bark).

That said, imagine the individual hearing people ask “Could you please leave the door open?” or “Would you like a cupcake?” or “May I take your coat?” or “Will you be staying for dinner?” It might seem logical to them to ask a question like “May you answer my question?”

The answer could also be simpler than that. A lot of people confuse “can” and “may” in certain situations. You’ve probably heard a conversation like this before:

Jimmy: “Mrs. Crabtree, can I drink Kool-Aid from the pitcher?”

Mrs. Crabtree: “I don’t know Jimmy, can you? I think you meant to ask ‘May I drink Kool-Aid from the pitcher?’”

Jimmy: “Okay, Mrs. Crabtree.”

Jimmy: “Mrs. Crabtree, may I drink Kool-Aid from the pitcher?”

Mrs. Crabtree: “No, you may not!”

In this case, Flummoxed, your friend needs to remember that “can” generally means “to be able to”; “may” expresses the possibility of doing something or the permission to do something. Perhaps there is a gentle way to suggest that your friend use the word “can” when requesting that someone else do something?

Good luck!


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