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Can I, May I?

Posted by Rob Shimwell

As an English teacher (and therefore, apparently, an arbiter of all things grammatical/ lexical), I am sometimes questioned when friends and family are unsure about English usage.

 

It normally starts with: “O great speaker of English,” (I wish there was an easier way to convey sarcasm in text), “which is right: Can I or May I? George and me or me and George? The data is or the data are?” OK, they don’t save them up and ask them in one go.

 

The first thing to do is to consider the word ‘right’ in that question. What does it mean? Actually, one of our psychological translation clients is very particular about the translation of right and correct. ‘Right’ can often have a much more emotional and moral subjectivity about it in the English it would seem; other languages sometimes don’t have that nuance. But often that word’s meaning is the key to my friends’ dilemmas.

 

I had a (French) lecturer at Uni who felt that grammar or vocabulary was only really ‘wrong’ if the intended meaning was not understandable. So for her “I went to the cinema tomorrow” is not OK as it generates confusion as to the timing but “I have went to the cinema yesterday” is OK because although the grammar doesn’t follow normal conventions, the meaning is clear. Not sure I totally share her opinion there, but you can see her point.

50 shades of grey?

 

Maybe it’s better to say acceptable and unacceptable, as this allows the extra bolt-on ‘under the circumstances’. When my mum was at school, it was always I and we shall; will was for the other forms of the verb (he, you they etc). Nowadays of course it only generally exists for the question forms shall I? and shall we? and in a bit of legalese implying a contractual duty.

 

Language evolves both grammatically and lexically. If we use ‘thou art’ is it wrong or just inappropriate? If a 54 year old husband describes his wife as ‘looking peng’ in front of his children, is that acceptable? Under the circumstances… [Answer to the second question is always, apparently, a resounding ‘no’ by the way]

 

Hence, when we hear in a song “he don’t love me no more” it seems far more palatable than when seen on a piece of paper. The spoken word is often more flexible than the written; technically this example breaks the it’s not understandable rule because of the “2 negatives make a positive”. But what makes it clear is context. Context is all.

 

I’m not for one moment claiming that we should abandon the rules that have been established over the years. But everyone needs an agreed path from which to deviate: music has its own set of rules, but that doesn’t mean that syncopated jazz or discords can’t sound great in their own right.

 

Do you have any ‘mistakes’ in English or in any language that really get on your nerves?

 

PS Personally, for what it’s worth, I have no real problem with can I or may I – they do the same job; I think putting the other person first in a pair shows a tad more politeness, and I’d like to think that even when I’m speaking English quickly I’d choose the me or I according to convention, but I know I mess it up too. The data are but I know I say the data is because I’m not picky enough to say a datum.

 

PPS What niggles me most is when people OVER-apply a rule because they want to appear more sophisticated and then get it wrong. If you don’t like that then, I’m sorry. That’s just the kind of person whom I am.



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