Can I ask a question ... ?

OK, why do people do this? They say things like "Can I ask you a question about something?" Typically on irc, but even in real life some times. Worse, some times people just say "Can I ask you a question?" !!!!

I expect part of it is the use of the word can. In my mind that is asking if something is possible, i.e. physically possible, doable, can happen. I.e. "Am I physically able to ask you a question..." which is a daft thing to ask - only you know if you can, or not, and generally, barring having a heart attack just then or suddenly going mute, you can indeed ask the question. After all, you have just shown the ability to ask questions by asking the first question :-)

However, even assuming the more likely meaning "Do you mind if", which makes a lot more sense, you then start to be playing in the realms of etiquette, which is a minefield in itself. If one has to have permission to ask a question surely one needs to have permission to ask the first question, i.e. I may mind being asked "Can I ask you a question?". I suppose this very rant suggest that is the case! So presumably the first question is a break in etiquette (doing something I do mind) in order to avoid breaking etiquette by asking the real question straight off... WTF?

I should probably not be trying to apply my tactless, and mostly logical, mind to any sort of social etiquette really should I? :-)


  1. This reminds me of a story my father tells of when he was at school in Edinburgh.

    Teachers were always trying to get the children to use the correct form of English.

    Someone asked the teacher 'Miss, Can I go to the toilet?', to which the teacher responded 'You can'. She waited until the student got up and was walking across the classroom, before she added 'but you may not'.

    The lesson that she was trying to teach is that the question should have been 'May I go to the toilet.'

    It just goes to show that even over 50 years ago, people were still making gramatical mistakes, and teachers were still trying to correct it; I guess without too much success.

  2. I didn't go to school with your dad and didn't go to school in Edinburgh... but it happened in my class in 2nd year of junior school (whatever that's called this week)

  3. there are a couple of irc channels where in the title / info of the channel it warns

    dont ask to ask just ask your question

    oh and wait ... wait ... and wait some more for an answer

    all too often ppl give it about 60 secs then ask the question or get quite rude about the fact that no one has actually jumped up and answered it for them in 3.426 milliseconds !

    of course in those situations the answer is almost universally RTFM (YOURSELF) !!


  4. It happens often enough in #A&A that [not a regular name] asks a question and by the time anyone can check the facts and type a reply, they've gone, sometimes even with a KTHXBAI or TFN.

    I suppose I should get my own blog for a rant about people who say "Can I get a pint of ...". A local barman's stock response is "No, you stay there and I'll get it for you.".

  5. The big problem with "don't ask to ask" on IRC isn't etiquette per se, but that nobody will ever reply to that and the poor person will leave without getting his issue fixed. I see this several times a day.

    But IRL it is a matter of testing the grounds because you might want to say "wait a bit" in order to not want to be disturbed right now. Second, since you want to be logical, if you deal with a person who do not like to be asked questions right away he is likely to mind it more than you mind the meta-question.

  6. A number of years ago I was given a tour of the London Air Traffic Control Centre at West Drayton (it's not there now) and in the Distress & Diversion Cell (guess what they deal with? :-) they said they are always amused when someone calls on the distress frequency (121.5MHz) and asks if they can do a "Practice Pan" (Pan is a lower level than Mayday), and then when they are told they can, there's a 10 second pause, then "Practice Pan...".
    They told us that people may as well just dive straight in because if there's a genuine emergency they'll be told so and the practice will be cancelled.
    But it just seems polite to ask first!

  7. Not sure I agree with the may/can distinction. In modern English, can seem to be a perfectly acceptable way to ask for permission, and in fact I almost never hear "may". I'd describe "may" as depricated - it still works, but don't use it in any new code. Er, speech.

    Anyway that aside, I always wonder about the announcements I hear each day on the London Underground saying "Any unattended items may be removed or destroyed". taken literally they are giving me permission to basically take anything that London Underground own that isn't nailed down :P

  8. Indeed, words change over time and it will depend on your background I expect. I am not alone in treating "can" the way I do, but I am sure others treat it as "may".

    As for "x may be done", like "calls may be recorded". I completely agree. "May" reads as giving permission. To me, using "might" is more a statement of possible event happening rather than giving permission for it to be done.


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