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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) :)

  • Larry,

    Thanks for responding to my post. I am a beginner programmer, so at first I was just like "Can't they just do a find and replace for that String?" but then I realized that you guys ship in 23,497,234 different languages :) and little Strings like that probably take awhile to fix in so many languages.

  • I suggest that you read about prescriptive versus descriptive linguistics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_prescription

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descriptive_linguistics

    When required, a distinction between "can" and "may" can be made. However, in actual every-day, real English, "can" is often used to ask permission. Description dictionaries such as the OED show actual texts with this usage.

    As a historical linguist, I am very aware that languages changes. The language of Beowulf is hardly understood by native speakers of English anymore. However, that does not necessarily mean that all of modern English is wrong.

    I can understand the desire for Microsoft to produce a professionally edited product in accordance with their style guides. However, this dialog will not annoy me. In fact, I rather like how it reflects actual usage.

  • Larry,

    Somehow, replacing "Can" with "May" in this particular sentence doesn't sound right to me.

    "May Windows collect more information about this problem?" - Don't you think there is something odd about it? Usage of the first person with "May", like "May I", "May we" etc. sounds right, but "May he...", "May John...", "May Windows..."? I'm not so sure.

    Girish

  • I think localization is a red herring here. The bug being described is a bug of one particular localization — namely, the translation into US English. Hopefully, all the other localizers noticed this ambiguity at the time of translation and had the common sense to translate it as appropriate for their target languages.

  • Centaur, it's not a red herring.  Any change in the text has to go through the localization process - there's no way of knowing if the Can/May choice ripples through other languages.

    We're VERY close to shipping Vista.  Under a month away.  It is insanely hard to get changes approved currently, especially over a language lawyer nit like this one (and as you can see from the comments, arguments can be made in favor of keeping the existing language).

  • Nit-picky? Maybe. I'd prefer that text presented to the user avoid local verbal colloquialisms in favour of proper English.  Yes, "can" and "may" are used interchangably in every-day speech for many people.  Using "May" instead of "Can" is no less understandable though.

  • Thursday, October 19, 2006 10:20 AM by Centaur

    > Hopefully, all the other localizers noticed this ambiguity at the

    > time of translation and had the common sense to translate it

    > as appropriate for their target languages.

    I saw that happen one time, but I've seen the opposite more often.  For example consider the following possible selections of answers.

    Paraphrasing from memory in English:

    1  I heard sound from all my speakers

    2  I didn't hear sound from one or more of my speakers

    Paraphrasing from memory in Japanese and translating:

    1  I heard sound from all my speakers

    2  I didn't hear sound from any of my speakers

    Fortunately it didn't matter which language was involved because the answer was 2 in both.

    On another PC the test sounds work so the answer was 1 in both languages.

    (By the way I'm curious why sounds worked perfectly in every application except Windows Media Centre, and why sounds worked perfectly inside Windows Media Centre except for those test sounds.  Microsoft supplied the Sigmatel C-something audio driver automatically through Windows Update.  But it doesn't really matter.  Vista's very close to shipping, so we'll have to see if a few service packs will make it usable.)

  • <The difference between "Can" and "May" can be quite subtle and most people don't catch it.>

    As a native speaker of the English language, I can assure you that the distinction is not the least bit subtle.  Can I make multiple copies of your software?  Be assured that I can.  May I?  Rest assured that I will not.

    The colloquial abuse of _can_ to mean _may_ is but one example of a coarsening of contemporary thought.  The accelerating loss of many constructs expressive of grammatical mood indicates, to me, reification of both the speaker or author and the addressee.  Can you be a little more humane?  May you be so!

  • Larry,

    Even the "May Windows..." form sounds bad to me and here is why:

    "Dad, can I go to the store?"

    "I don't know, perhaps you are too tired?"

    "Dad, may I go to the store?"

    "I don't know, perhaps you are afraid?"

    "Dad, do you allow me to go to the store?"

    "Sure, you may go but only today."

    So IMHO it should say something like:

    "Do you want to allow Windows to collect more information about this problem?"

    [Yes][No]

  • I would like to pick a couple of nits:

    "Can I go to the store?" - "What, are you suddenly lame?"

    "May I go to the store?" - "If you like, it's up to you."

    "Shall I go to the store?" - "Yes, please do."

    "May" solicits permission, which is usually well enough, but "shall" is used to solicit instruction.  In particular, when proposing to take immediate action for a single instance, "shall" is more polite and deferential because the respondent initiates the action by giving instruction.

    Ok, I know Microsoft is not going to use "shall" because of the campaign to anthropomorphize (nit 1) computers through lowest common denominator colloquialism.  Such false populism (nit 2) is unfortunate because correct usage only survives while those who address large audiences continue to demonstrate its expressive utility.

  • "File under fascinating"???

    You've gotta be kidding yourself. Or you must have been working for too long in front of that machine.

    Replacing that text should be assigned to english teachers, not to real developers, who can't write appropiately to humans because they are used to write to machines.

    Fascinating would be if Vista used less RAM than XP.

    Fascinating would be if it took less time to boot than XP.

    Have you ever consider that users want an operating system that is up all the time? Please have a look at: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/11/21.html

    Maybe Microsoft should reconsider maintaining people for so long writing operating systems of the past. Real innovation comes from changing the old people who have old ideas with new people who have new ideas.

  • The number of times I heard a child in Mr. Whittemore's class ask, "Can I go to the bathroom?"

    "I certainly hope you can," he'd say, "or you have a serious medical problem!"

  • I'd forgotten that Rick, thanks :)

  • Derek said:

    e.g. "He says that China is lovely."  OR "He says China is lovely."

    How about "He says that the China is lovely"?

    How else would you know he was talking about China the country and not some girl named China?

    I am not a native speaker so I may be wrong on this one.

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

    You can use one of your kids as an example or you can use your kids as examples.

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