Here is Lingyun Lai’s second blogpost:
Sometimes, grammar handbooks and usage guides address similar usage issues, but their conclusions are not always the same. Nowadays, quite a few grammar references are based on corpus linguistics, and many such descriptive findings disaffirm prescriptive beliefs. I am curious about how sticklers react to those contradictions. Do linguistic findings exert any influence on usage guide writings?
At high school, I learned that when asking for permission, ‘may’ is more proper than ‘can’. For instance, instead of asking “Can I borrow your pen”, I am supposed to say “May I borrow your pen”. However, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (LGSWE 1999) presents a different picture (from: LGSWE 1999, p. 491):
The graph shows the frequency of four modals, can, could, may and might, with the CONV column reflecting conversation, and ACAD academic prose. The statistics shows that all four modals are scarcely used to express ‘permission’ in academic proses. In terms of conversation, LGSWE writes: “May is rarely used in conversation. When it does occur, it typically marks logical possibility rather than permission”. This conclusion means that in actual language practice, most of time people use “can I” to ask for permissions, and that it is more customary to say “Can I use your pencil”. LGSWE highlights the inconsistency between their findings and the prescriptive preference, “Despite a well-known prescription favoring may rather than can for expressing permission, may is especially rare in the sense of permission” (Biber et al. 1999, p. 493). More than fifteen years have passed since LGSWE published this result, and I wonder if it has ever influenced any usage guide author.
I looked into the HUGE database, and found sixteen usage guides published after LGSWE. After checking each entry, I noticed that most of them still consider may as the more suitable verb for asking permission. For instance:
“Don’t Say: Can I use your lucky bowling ball? Say instead: May I use your lucky bowling ball?” – When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People (Batko, 2008)
“May I? requests permission. Can I? asks whether I am able to do something” – The Queen’s English and How to Use It (Lamb, 2010)
“It is still widely held that using can for permission is somehow incorrect” – Oxford A-Z of English Usage (Butterfield, 2013)
Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2006) is the only usage guide that I found to be directly influenced by LGSWE. The Longman corpus was referred several times in her section on “can or may”. Peters’ general opinions are in line with corpus findings; she acknowledges that may is mostly used to express the meaning of possibility. However, she still holds that may is more formal and polite than can, when used to express the sense of permission (Peters 2006, p. 88).
From this case study, I wonder if most of the usage guide authors are immune to the output of academic research. If they found out linguistic conclusions contravene their convictions, would they budge?
I couldn’t resist adding this cartoon to Lingyun’s post: it was made by Dennis Baron, as an e-card for Henry Fowler on th occasion of his 150th birthday: