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ESL forum > Ask for help > Polite English_Help needed!    

Polite English_Help needed!



izulia
China

Polite English_Help needed!
 
Hi everybody,
I remember asking a similar question a long while ago, but there were some contradicting answers, so here I am with the same question again.
 
What is more polite way for the students to address their teachers in the situations below? Or is it something that doesn ´t matter too much?
 
1) When they ask for permission, e.g.
May I (have some water, please)?  or
Can I (have some water, please)?
 
2) When they ask for help, e.g.
Could you help me please? or
Can you help me please?
 
Also which question is correct? If both, which one is more preferable? 
How do I spell xxx?  or
How do you spell xxx?
 
Thank you for your help in advance!

28 Jan 2012      



yanogator
United States

"May" is for permission, "Can" is for ability, so only "May" is correct for #1. However, many people use "can" in informal situations.
 
"Could" is more polite than "Can", although both are correct.
 
"How do you spell ..." is correct, because it is our way of saying  "How is ... spelled?". We never say "How do I spell ...", unless we are wondering how we have misspelled it in the past, for the purpose of learning from your mistakes.
 
Bruce

28 Jan 2012     



almaz
United Kingdom

There is absolutely nothing incorrect about can for permission. This sense (known as ´deontic ´) is perfectly grammatical and has been used as such for centuries.

28 Jan 2012     



Poppingdale
Portugal

I agree with Almaz. I  ´m quite sure that both may and can are correct when asking for permission.
I think the "you" in How do you spell...? does not refer to you, the teacher but to people in general. It ´s a sort of indeterminate pronoun. Am I not right? I ´d appreciate an answer. Thanks!
 

28 Jan 2012     



phillipsfou
Greece

Hi Izulia. I agree with yanogator. The correct grammar usage is ´may ´ for permission and ´can for ability when compared to each other. There is nothing wrong with ´can ´ but ´may ´ is more polite. So is ´could ´. As far as your third question is concerrned, yanogator has me covered.

28 Jan 2012     



cunliffe
United Kingdom

Is ´May I ....? ´ American?
It sounds really old fashioned and over the top in English. ´Can I...? ´ is what we say when asking for permission.
Lynne B xxx

28 Jan 2012     



phillipsfou
Greece

@ almaz.

You really don ´t need to get defensive but since you asked ref: Practical English Usage, Michael Swan, Oxford University Press. If you read more carefully you will see that I said that can is not wrong. May is more polite. can expresses ability, possibility and permission whereas may does not express ability. That ´s what I said, not that it ´s wrong.

28 Jan 2012     



almaz
United Kingdom

@Filia,

"The correct grammar usage is ´may´ for permission and ´can ´ for ability..." (my emphasis) Could you possibly tell me where you found this ´rule ´? Was it Strunk & White, perhaps? Or maybe Lindlay Murray? John Dryden? Simon Heffer? Have you ever actually seen it in a modern grammar book?
I think we should be told...

EDIT: hit the wrong button. This should have come immediately after cunliffe ´s post. Apologies to Filia.

28 Jan 2012     



izulia
China

Thank you very much for your answers. Just to clarify, 
 
If you think May I ..? is more polite would you correct your students if they address you with Can...? instead of May...?
 
Also in our school students are taught by their British teachers to ask questions like:
How do I do this sum?
How do I answer this question?
How do I pronounce this word?  etc. AND
How do I spell xxxx?
 
Is it the last question only that sounds wrong then?
 
Thank you agan :)

28 Jan 2012     



phillipsfou
Greece

It ´s ok. No offence taken. It ´s nice to participate in a healthy debate over English grammar issues. But to answer to izulia: No, I wouldn ´t correct them over ´may ´ and ´can ´ except for trying to teach them the difference or making a point on this issue. I wouldn ´t correct them if they asked me for permission to go to the bathroom, for instance.

28 Jan 2012     



almaz
United Kingdom

Filia, your bets are well-hedged: The correct grammar usage is ´may ´ for permission and ´can for ability AND There is nothing wrong with ´can ´ but ´may ´ is more polite. If there ´s nothing wrong with ´can ´, why bother insisting that only ´may ´ is correct when you contrast them? Politeness (or formality) is not intrinsically more grammatical or ´correct ´.

By the way, I have Swan in front of me; section 124 (in my copy): can and could (4): interpersonal uses (permission, requests etc). Swan points out: "Some people consider them (may and might) more ´correct ´, but in fact can and could are normally preferred in informal educated usage". I can assure you that there ´s nothing defensive about it on my part.

28 Jan 2012     

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