The use of modals to calibrate politeness when making requests

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HERE’S a question about modal usage and degree of politeness that you yourself might have wondered about one time but never bothered to get answered categorically. It was posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by a member who goes by the username Miss Mae:
“My mother asked me yesterday if the phrase ‘may you please’ isn’t wrong. ‘Of course it isn’t, Ma!’ I blurted out, recalling the times that I used that construction myself. But was I correct, sir? Was I really correct in saying that the modal ‘may’ can be used with ‘please’?”

Here’s my reply to Miss Mae:
I’ll tell you outright that you gave wrong grammar advice to your Mom and have been wrong all along in using the construction “may you please.” It’s definitely bad form and terribly unidiomatic to use the modal “may” in tandem with the function word “please,” as in, say, the impossibly wrongheaded “May you please open the door?”

The problem with “may you please” is not only that it’s grammatically redundant, “may” being a modal for humbly asking permission to do something and “please” being a function word for also expressing politeness when making a request. The bigger problem is that “may you please” actually breaches the upper limits of expressing politeness, making the speaker sound overly deferential and even fawning to the person being addressed. (To get a petition granted, imagine prostrating yourself before royalty in utter supplication.)
Remember now that in the hierarchy of English modals for asking permission, “may” is already the lowest in the totem pole for forthrightness in making a request, way, way below the modals “would,” “could,” “will,” and “can” (in that order of decreasing degree of forthrightness). Indeed, “may” is already at rock bottom for forthrightness and so exceedingly high for politeness that it can no longer take “please” to further intensify it.

Thus, while good English can’t countenance and has effectively banished constructions like “May you please open the door?”, it gives wide latitude to the other request modals to work in tandem with “please,” allowing us to say “Would you please open the door”, “Could you please open the door”, “Will you please open the door,” or “Can you please open the door” depending on our desired degree of politeness or that socially required by the situation.


Miss Mae earlier also asked this very interesting question in the Forum:

“Sir, is it true that the apostrophe in ‘it’s’ had been placed there just to avoid confusion with the elided ‘it is’? I came across that assertion in the book The Fry Chronicles and got curious.”

My answer to Miss Mae:
“The author of that book—it’s actually his autobiography—is Stephen Fry, a British comedian, actor, writer, and activist. I’d say his views about English grammar are quirkish but charming, fun to read, and sometimes devilishly spot-on (Check him out in the video “Stephen Fry’s Kinetic Typography” on YouTube (http://tinyurl.com/nfkedhe). But as to the assertion that, as you quote him, “the apostrophe in ‘it’s’ is used there to avoid confusion with the elided ‘it’s,’” I frankly don’t know what to make of it since I haven’t read the book.

What I know is that “it’s” is used only as a contraction of “it is” or “it has,” as in “It’s a rainy day today” (Unelided: “It is a rainy day today”) and “It’s been a lovely evening” (Unelided: “It has been a lovely evening.”) The elided “it’s” is unique in that while every English noun or pronoun with an apostrophe-“s” indicates possession, “it’s” doesn’t. “It’s” only works as a contraction of “it is” or “it has,” so I suspect that Stephen must have had something in mind—perhaps a zany punch line that never got written in that book—when he made that curious assertion.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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