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Confessions of an Old Fogey
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Mother, Can I?

Mother, Can I?

  • Comments 45

Recently someone posted the attached screen shot on the internal self hosting alias.

What's wrong with this English?


It's the use of "Can" instead of "May". This happens to be one of my minor pet peeves with common English usage.  The difference between "Can" and "May" can be quite subtle and most people don't catch it.  "Can" reflects the ability to do something, "May" requests permission to do something.

To use my kids as an example, a dialog with them might go something like:

"Dad, can I go to the store?"  "Absolutely you can - it's just down the street, so it's not a big deal."

"Dad, may I go to the store?" "No you may not, without a parent accompanying you."


The first question asks if the kid asking has the ability to go to the store - of course they do, it's nearby.  The second question asks permission to go to the store.


In this dialog's case, the prompt is asking if Windows has the ability to collect more information.  Of course Windows has the ability to collect more information.  It's asking permission to collect more information, so the correct prompt should be "May Windows collect more information about this problem?".


Unfortunately I didn't notice this until yesterday, so it's too late get this fixed for Vista, but it'll be fixed in a subsequent release.  And it's going to annoy the heck out of me every time I see it (which shouldn't be that often :->).

Edit: Fixed typo pointed out by Peter Ritchie (I love the power of the edit button to make me look less stupid) :)

  • The problem with blog entries complaining about proper use of English is that people have the habit of pointing out errors in the English of the entry.

    "...which shouldn't won't be that often..."? :-)

  • Thanks Peter :)

  • Will this problem be fixed when Vista is translated to "proper" English in the UK edition? ;-)

  • Of course, part of a phrase being wrong is, who says it's wrong? It's traditional to teach the can/may distinction to children of school age, but it's also traditional to forget it once one is out of school. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that both "can" and "may" would be acceptable in this sentence.

  • Actually this is grammatically correct.  "Can" has multiple definitions including both "to be able to" and "to have permission to".  "May" might less ambiguous but it also leads to an awkward connotation so I believe "Can" is the correct choice in this particular example.

  • We, the French speakers, are very aware of this subtlety in the English language for one good reason: Can and may are the same verb in French (pouvoir). Therefore we have to learn carefully when to use one or the other. It's actually one of the challenges during the first year of English class.

    Until of course we become proficient enough to forget about it and do the same mistake as most English speakers! :-)

  • Dave, that's actually an interesting question.  It's my belief that we don't translate to dialects, only to major languages (and yes, you could put forward a very strong case that EN-UK is the major language while EN-US is a dialect).  This has actually been a source of some controversy.

  • My pet peeve is that every version of Windows always claims to the (best|most secure|fastest) Windows ever. It's not. It's the best *to date*, or the best *yet*. Not the best ever. If it was the best ever, then every subsequent release will be worse!

    And don't even get me started on the Dutch localisations of Microsoft products... they're usually good, but sometimes just terrible. Windows Mobile 5 is the worst: spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, made-up abbreviations, inconsistent translations (things are routinely called by different names in the same dialog), different policy wrt localising special folder names than desktop Windows (in desktop Windows, My Documents is translated, but Program Files is not; in WM5, it's reverse!), and a few completely wrong translations where it seems they just translated the resource file without even looking at the actual application.

    That's not even mentioning the fact that WM5 Dutch has *no* handwriting recognition (not even the English one; absolutely none whatsoever) and the keyboard SIP can't make a dollar sign.

  • So if your kid's friends ask, "Mr. Osterman, can we go to the store," what would you say to them?  Would you give them the can/may speech?  Would you be technically correct and say yes they could, only to be liable when they took it as permission and were kidnapped or injured on the way?  Would you recognize that most use can as may and say no to them?  One of my pet peeves is the "proper" use of words even when the use is archaic and confusing ... not to suggest that can/may falls into that category... yet.  Language isn't stagnant.

  • Of course I wouldn't give them the lecture - that's for my kids only - I wouldn't bore someone elses kid with my peeves, just mine :)

  • > I wouldn't bore someone elses kid with my peeves, just mine :)

    That's the whole reason for HAVING kids, isn't it? :)

  • The can/may distinction in questions like that is going away. Don't the Vista guidelines for text say to write in common language to make the user feel at ease? I think having "may" in that dialog would sound overly formal, which is the opposite of what the guidelines aim to achieve.

  • Merriam-Webster on can (verb):

    Usage: Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts.

    While as a non-native English speaker I do understand the difference between being able to do something and having the permission to do something in most cases being able to do something implies having a permission. For example, a kid in school is free to ask whether he or she can go to the bathroom. Because without a permission they will not be able to excercise their ability to do so. At that point, do they really have the ability to go to the bathroom? Same applies to your children, if you do not give them permission to go to the store do they have the ability to do it? I think part of that is having the permission to do so.

  • Just curious, how come it is too late to fix for Vista?

  • > (which shouldn't be that often :->).

    Here's the may/can ambiguity in one word ^_^

    "Shouldn't" as in "wouldn't be proper to"?  Of course!

    "Shouldn't" as in "isn't likely to"?  Come on, you and I both have enough experience to know not to believe that.

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