A Dying Courtesy


I had never thought much about language change except to complain about it. In fact, prior to dissecting the language I speak, read, and write through the introduction of linguistics to my coursework, I subscribed quite heavily to the prescriptivist and current anti-borrowing camps into which many conservative Americans fall (owing much of my perspective to a diligent grammarian-type mother).

The big debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists is about perspective. When contemplating the idea that language change is language decay, I realized it is fraught with pessimism when looking at the evolution of the English language. The American linguist, William Labov, has outlined three factors in language change: internal, social, and cognitive (How English Works, Curzan 23). These changes are nothing new. A general study of how much English has changed from the 5th century to present day would show enormous differences, even so many that we can hardly comprehend Old English without a deciphering table on hand. These considerations prove how the concept of concrete grammar rules is futile.

In the course of my several communications, I have noticed something that is incongruent with usage rules taught to me by my mother. Throughout my childhood, we were told I don’t know—can you? whenever my siblings or I would say Can I..? instead of the considered more polite and well-mannered May I…? when asking for something or permission. I have perpetuated this tradition with my own children because I, too, believe that asking May I…? contributes to good society. But does it, really?

Informal observations have led me to believe that either expression is appropriate since intent and tone of voice typically matter a great deal more than actual words, yet I wanted to explore the issue in more depth. My research has been simple. I conducted a one-question poll on this blog All Things Purple, of which I am the author/owner, for two weeks, wrote a blog entry: Your Assistance is Kindly Requested asking the readership to participate and provide their reasoning, and held casual interviews with a few close friends regarding their philosophies on the Can I vs. May I topic.

The poll question was: When making a request, would you typically say Can I ...? or May I ...? Out of 59 participants 44% said they use Can I…?; only 13% use May I…?; and 42% said they use either one, depending on the situation or to whom they are talking. The poll was not as widespread as I would have liked but it does reflect my casual observations. 

In the responses found in the comments section of the blog post, 3 out of 7 people cited the I don’t know—can you? rule as being a big factor in their upbringing; therefore, those individuals chose either the May I…? or depends on situation answers. One participant (the author of I Was Stupid) explained:
I voted for using either or, depending on situation. I also use 'could I possibly' quite often as well! I think 'Can I' is slightly less forceful... I'm more likely to use when speaking to strangers or people I'm being delicate around. It's far less definite. 
This reasoning appears to be quite common from my observation. In one conversation, I was told that using May I…? sounds archaic.  The opinion that teaching children the I don’t know—can you? rule in today’s society might cause them to be ostracized by peers was also brought up in another interview.  The important concept of code-switching and manners was then discussed as a vital part of good society and how the different forms have purpose when speaking with those in authority as a sign of respect. 

I wonder as I contemplate on these statistics and responses: Am I just perpetuating needless prescriptivism or am I helping my children to know how to code-switch and accept language change at the same time?

Day to day observations match the research I performed, and I realize that my philosophy toward language usage leans more toward descriptivism on any given point, bringing me to merely desire to communicate efficiently and pleasurably with as many people as time will allow. Language change comes with time and different eras. May we embrace it if we can. 

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