Wrong Word Wednesday #24

Every week I will demonstrate an example of poor English where a different word is used from the one intended. Sometimes this creates a grammatically incorrect sentence. Unfortunately, the mistake is usually so pervasive that we all do it and such errors are usually made by those who should know better – journalists working for national or global media outlets such as newspapers and television

Can / May

Can I ask you a question? I bet you didn’t know you were using the wrong word here did you?
May I ask you a question? Do you know the difference?

Both in a way are grammatically correct but the first sentence does not mean what you think it means.

Can I ask… – What you are asking here is Am I able? Well yes… if you are able to speak then you are able to ask me a question
May I ask… – What you are asking here is Do I have your permission to ask you a question?

As language evolves though, meanings change. The OED states that it is no longer grammatically wrong to use “can” when you mean “may” but language perfectionists would rather keep the distinction. For further details on the exceptions, visit Grammar Monster

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About mgm75

I began freelance copywriting in November 2012, work that I carried out in my spare time. I love the written word, have always enjoyed writing and in 2013 I took the bold decision to make a career of being a wordsmith.

5 thoughts on “Wrong Word Wednesday #24

  1. I’ve only recently (like in the last 10 years) started to use the two the proper way they should be. Prior to that, I didn’t really know the difference. It just wasn’t something stressed in any of my elementary classes. I think our teachers were just happy if we spelled them right!

    1. That one stumped me so I had to look it up. “Might” is past tense so “Might I ask” should be grammatically nonsensical.

      According to the British Council Learn English page it is a matter purely of extreme politeness to ask “Might I ask…”

      Oxford Dictionary website says much the same thing. It seems that it is a matter purely of very formal communication.

      It is an odd one though!

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