“Can I…?”

“Can I…go somewhere/do something/try this/try that…”

I don’t know, can you?

Whenever I think of the proper use of “can,” for some reason this line of dialogue from an In Living Color sketch comes full force to mind:

“You asked ‘can I?’ The real question is ‘Will I?’ The answer is no.”

Using the word “can” when asking a question isn’t really asking if something can be done; rather, it is implying if you would be physically able to do something.  Which is why the snotty retort of “I don’t know, can you?” often accompanies the use of “can I, can you, and can we.”

I receive plenty of emails each week where I’m asked if I “can” do something for people.  Of course, I can do something, but I’ve had to bite my typing tongue on many an occasion and fight the urge to not say “do you mean, ‘may’ I have (insert physical need),” or ‘would you be able to (insert intangible need).'”  It is murder for my inner Grammar Police instinct.

But, knowing how I feel about the use of the word “can,” rather than “may,” what is the acceptable use of the word when seeking permission or requesting help?

According to the Oxford Dictionary:

“There is a widespread view that using can to ask for permission is wrong and that it should only be used in expressions to do with ability or capability.”

So yes, my instincts are valid, but are they correct?

Again, according to the Oxford Dictionary:

“But the ‘permission’ use of can is not in fact incorrect in standard English. The only difference between the two verbs is that one is more polite than the other. In informal contexts it’s perfectly acceptable to use can; in formal situations it would be better to use may.”

So, it is a matter of politeness and formality versus being informal.  I wouldn’t say impolite because asking permission is always polite.

When I was in eighth grade and learning to speak Spanish, my teacher would correct us if we asked (en Espanol, of course!) “Can I?”  For example, one of my classmates (and a childhood friend of my brother) asked our teacher “Puedo ir al bano?” (“Can I go to the bathroom?”), to which our teacher would respond “No se, puedes?” (“I don’t know, can you?”). At the time it was funny, but as I’d learned more of the language, I learned he actually was correct. Because “can I” and “may I” are both translated as puedo in Spanish, our teacher was simply messing around with him.  And we’re talking abot 13 and 14-year-old kids.  No one at that age (myself included) is ever formal.

Sidenote: You may find it hard to believe, but this grammar police was once grammar policed by an ex-nun seventh grade English teacher.  Story for another day!

One word, two meanings, formal/polite versus informal.  Gotta love the Spanish language.

Back to English…

The people emailing me are obviously not doing anything wrong by saying “Can you.”  I certainly can do something, and I absolutely will do whatever it is they need.  I mean, have you ever heard someone say “May you?” before?  Good lord, I hope not, that just doesn’t sound right at all!

At the end of the day, all that really matters in the “Can I”/”Will I” argument is that one is more formal than the other, both are acceptable use, and (in my view), it is better to sound correct than to use the wrong word and have someone respond, “I don’t know, can you?”

But it is so much fun responding with “I don’t know, can you,” isn’t it?


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