40 Comments

  1. I don’t understand people who say, ‘Can I have . . . ‘ rather than ‘I’d like . . . ‘. I mean, you’re in a restaurant; of COURSE you can have . . . whatever’s on the menu.

    I USED to eat out with someone who ALWAYS asked if the ice tea was fresh-brewed. Then, whether the waitress said YES [which I never believed] or NO, she’d order it anyway. Just a weird ritual, I guess, but an annoying one to others at the table with you more than one time.

  2. So either she assumes waitresses are psychic, she never eats out, or she plays Diner Roulette.

  3. I remember a sign in my grade three(?) classroom that explained that not everything that is structured as a question is actually a question. (You know the helpful informative signs in grade-school classrooms, right?) “Can I have…” falls under that, as it’s just courtesy, not really a question. Same thing if you “ask” someone to move their bag off a bus seat – you’re not asking. There are definitely things that you can ask a waitress for, but I would argue that the listed dishes on the menu aren’t them.

    The tea thing might make sense in terms of being prepared for what she’s getting. There are definitely things where I like both A and B, but if I get B expecting A I will hate it. But that’s a bit of a stretch.

  4. She doesn’t say she wants anything. But she’s taking a seat in the diner without ordering.
    She does have a cup of coffee, but the waitress probably offered that when she first sat down.

  5. Andréa: “Can I have…” just sounds nicer to me. As Christine says, it’s just a courtesy. Although it is at least partially a question too, as it’s possible that you can’t have what’s on the menu for some reason or another.

    Similarly, if the waitress answers, “Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of apple pie,” is she really sorry? Maybe she doesn’t really care! But it just sounds nicer than a flat “No, you can’t because we’re out.”

  6. She probably is sorry. Even if she doesn’t care about the person ordering, disappointing a customer usually doesn’t have a positive effect on the tip.

  7. And it really does benefit both parties to be courteous – the waitress for a good tip, and the customer because they can decide what happens to your food!

  8. I don’t see the cartoon character literally claiming she has never asked for anything in her life, implying among other things that she had never been in a diner or anywhere else before. I see her as talking to her friend in terms of some personal relationship issues and behaviours – “Never asked for anything/ made demands/ put pressure” etc etc – and then she realises that what she has said cannot literally be true (she has asked for a billions things: her parents for a little pony, her teacher if she can go to the loo, a barista for a skinny doppel to gang), and so her second sentence makes a joke about her daft first sentence before her smartarse friend cuts in with a witty rejoinder.

    I agree with others that “can I get”, “may I have” at the front and “please” at the back are useful politeness markers oiling the wheels of intercourse despite their being wasteful verbal redundancy spoken word items. Basically, you the customer holding a menu interacting with a server holding a notepad need only state the bare minimally informative namefacts (or, in some establishments the item numbers) of what you want, and all the rest is fluff. “Please” is short for “If you please”, which is a bit nonsensical if you think about it too literally: you’re in a restaurant; you should be able to have the stuff on the menu without having to beseech the kitchen service gatekeepers to bring it only if they are so minded/ it pleases them.

    Having said that, I personally find it annoying when you place an order and the waiter says “Not a problem!”. Even though they are trying to be cheerfully cooperative, I don’t see why the “problem” concept should even arise – is there a crisis behind the scenes she is trying to cover up? What problem? I’d reserve “not a problem!” phrase for situations where your partner is having a heart attack on a deserted road and a passing motorist in a tuxedo clearly going to an important function stops and helps out and insists on driving you half an hour in the opposite direction to the nearest hospital. When you say “I don’t want to put you to any trouble” and they say “not a problem!” that’s fine, and it would be churlish in this situation to wince as though someone had drawn their fingernails down a blackboard.

  9. This comment thread is a fascinating view into different linguistic patterns. I’d suggest we say where we’re from, but there’s so many more factors affecting this sort of thing that I suspect that wouldn’t be enough information to make it worth making people feel a bit on edge from the request.

  10. marmitaj: “No problem,” or its IM version, “np” is the standard way at my workplace to say “you’re welcome” to any thank you, big or small.

    A: Is the meeting today?
    B: No, it was moved to tomorrow.
    A: Thanks
    B: np

    Or

    A: Thanks for working 20 hours to finish this component we desperately needed.
    B: np

    Sometimes I ask “can I get X?” and the person answers “Of course you can!” which sounds to me like they’re interpreting it as a real question, rather than a courtesy – that always sounds a little weird to me.

  11. I’ll admit to often using “no problem” as a response; it just seems so . . . natural . . . for Minnesotans. But I’m trying to school myself to go with “You’re welcome” instead, since I’ve heard some people have bad reactions to the other. (Maybe they’re out-of-staters, just visiting here? Well, O.K. if so, no problem.)

    I do recall being taken aback a while ago when I asked a deli counterman for something very basic, like a half pound of sausage, and got the perky/intense response “I can do that!” I suspect he was new at the job and had been counseled by some positive thinker type to visualize all interactions that way. Frankly, it would not have occured to me to doubt that he could in fact have done ‘that,’ unless he’d happen to have a seizure just then. (Which he did not; so — no problem.)

  12. I love that they were served coffee when they arrived; too many diners with the amount room we see here, have disappeared in the Boston area.
    [I think the woman speaking is just pausing between her disclosure, and the reason she’s telling her friend now.. I think that’s funny, it being so natural and sweet. Such mental movement between sides of the poignant – that’s-just-sad fence (or similar) is one of my favorite kinds of humor. I also think the pause makes it count as the rule of three for those that can feel pauses]

  13. I often ask for my food with a “Can I have…” but that’s because I’m a picky eater and often want some change made to the item, whether it’s simply dressing on the side or no onions or subbing fried chicken for the grilled chicken on a salad. And I generally follow that with a “please”, and I nearly always say “thanks” when they bring the food or a drink refill, even though I know it’s their job to do those things.

  14. I wonder if any servers are English teachers.
    Customer: “Can I have a turkey sandwich?”
    Server: “Yes, you CAN have a turkey sandwich.”
    Long awkward silence.
    Server: “Did you mean ‘may I’?”
    Customer: “MAY I have a turkey sandwich?”
    Server: “Yes, you may.”

    I wonder if any servers are Giant Steps players.
    Server: “We have turkey, ham and peanut butter sandwiches.”
    Customer: “May I have a turkey sandwich?”
    Server: “Yes you may. What would you like to drink? We have root beer and coffee.”
    Customer: “May I have coffee?”
    Server: “Yes you may. What would you like for dessert? We have pie and ice cream.”
    Customer: “Ice cream, please.”
    Server: “No ice cream for you. You forgot to say ‘may I’.”

  15. Alternately, she intends to just sit there and not order anything at all. Doesn’t want anything but to sit at the table in the diner wasting the waitresses time.

  16. Sometimes when I’m at someone’s house, I’ll ask “do you have a bathroom?” even though I know it sounds ridiculous. I’ve had waitresses tell me that I can’t have something on the menu, but I’ve never had anyone tell me that they don’t have a bathroom. I can’t help myself, though, it just somehow sounds a little nicer than “where’s your bathroom?”

  17. I usually respond to the query about what I want to order with, “I’d like . . .” I guess that’s optimistic of me. I have not yet had the server respond with, “I guess we’ll see.”

  18. I just have to point out that the woman in the cartoon has extremely long arms.

    Maybe she’s never asked for anything because it’s easy for her to reach over and take whatever she wants.

  19. All this talk about the “Can I get…” way of phrasing a question reminds me of a time when I was in third grade and I asked my teacher, “Can I go to the restroom?”

    Her response was, “I don’t know. Can you?”

    I honestly didn’t know how to respond. I mean, why did she answer my question with a question? Was she giving me the opportunity to answer that question myself? What she telling me that I didn’t need her permission?

    Whatever the reasoning, all I knew is that I HAD TO GO TO THE BATHROOM, and her questioning me WASN’T HELPING MATTERS.

    In first and second grade I attended an Italian school, where the normal way to ask to go to the restroom was “Posso andare al bagno?” This literally translates to English as “Can I go to the bathroom?” (As you can see, Italian doesn’t have this hang-up between “Can I?” and “May I?”)

    Leave it to English-speaking teachers to teach a detail of English grammar at the risk of having a small student wet his pants.

  20. @J-L: Not to mention that even if your teacher was grammatically literal-minded, she should tend to assume that the vast majority of third-graders have the ability to go to the restroom. So maybe the conversation should have gone this way:

    “Can I go to the restroom?”
    “I think you probably can, although you are the one who would know for sure.”

  21. Is the can/may distinction historically justified, or is it borderline bogus like shall/will and the “b” in “debt”? We have almost completely forgotten the distinction between “want” and “desire”, which to Samuel Johnson were never synonyms.

  22. I sympathize with Mrs. Healy. I’m a teacher, and I HATE when kids ask for things like this:

    “Sir, I need a pen.”

    My standard response is: “Wonderful. I need a new car.” And then I walk away.

  23. “or is it borderline bogus like shall/will”

    Borderline bogus to me is stuff like the after the fact invention of a distinction between fewer and less, which has no historical justification, whereas the shall / will distinction is very simply (and historically justified) the now fallen out of use conjugations — I/we shall, you/he/they will.

  24. And the “b” in “debt” is also probably historically justified, the related word “debit” coming immediately to mind — at some point the “b” was pronounced it seems to me, so it’s not bogus. I haven’t looked it up, though, so you may be able to catch me by showing how it was an after the fact false “correction” because of a misunderstanding of the word “debit”. I had a linguistics professor try and convince me that that is the case with the “t” in “often”, erroneously brought in because of “oft”, though I don’t fully buy it…

  25. The ‘b’ in debt was inserted into an old word, usually spelled like “dette” so it would look more Latin-y. It likely did come from Latin originally, probably through French.

  26. The “shall/will” distinction is this: First person: “shall” describes future action: “I shall make a pie today.” “Will” states an intention of an act of determination or defiance: “I WILL go swimming today whether you like it or not.” Second and third person: “will” describes future action or direction: “You will take this paper to the clerk.” “When he sees the bill he will be angry.” “Shall” is a command: “I don’t care if you’re afraid of water. You SHALL go swimming today.” “He shall pay the bill. I will see to that.” This at least was the rule taught in grammar schools only a few generations ago.

  27. Ah, I see I completely misunderstood and/or was completely wrong with regard to the examples in your previous post. I was never exposed to that version of shall/will — I’m kind of surprised that they ever got away with it, because all you have to do is read older works to see it is simple conjugation. I did come across a really stupid theory when I was teaching ESL in a chapter in the text which was trying to teach an imaginary distinction between will/going to for the future tense. This was in Brasil, and most of the teachers didn’t have the confidence to question the text, but as a native speaker I was iconoclastic — this is total NONSENSE! Maybe some speakers somewhere feel a distinction, but it is by no means universal, and trivially debunked — in fact, a lot of the teachers had such examples from movies, where they used the “wrong” form. A whole CHAPTER wasting time trying to teach something that doesn’t exist!

  28. @ larK – At least one of my high school English teachers taught exactly the same “shall/will” distinction that MiB described so precisely; I’m glad that he saved me from trying to explain it. Nevertheless, even though I understood the prescriptivist differentiation back then (and still remember it now), and although I might still use “shall” on occasion for emphasis, in everyday terms “shall” tends to sound old-fashioned, prissy, and overly formal. Personally, I think the “rule” was inherited from an older (probably British) sense of usage which has largely been forgotten on the other side of the Atlantic.

  29. Back when I was a productive member of society, working as an engineer at MegaCorp, requirements documents would use “shall”.

  30. “‘Will’ states an intention of an act of determination or defiance”

    Mr. Churchill must have gone to a different grammar school than you, because “we shall never surrender”.

  31. Mr. Churchill was a stickler for proper usage. There was no possibility that they would surrender, defeated or not. “We will never surrender” = we are determined not to surrender. “We shall never surrender” = ain’t gonna happen.

  32. Mr. Churchill was a stickler for proper usage: First person singular and plural pronouns are conjugated as “shall”.

  33. Mark in Boston – I was going to mention that it is May I, not Can I (unless one is, of course, is asking if they ability to have whatever it is). But wouldn’t the wait person reply “I don’t know, can you”

    Like Wendy I am a (very) picky eater (although mom insists I was not – I remember being one as a child) and will often special order food – Robert ordering in Wendys “one plain junior burger, two junior burgers with tomatoes…” – guess which one is mine – and I will say “may I have” or “is it possible to get X without Y” or even is possible to get “X” with “J” instead of Q” – “and the soda no ice please”.

    Winter Wallaby – “Where is the bathroom please” – True story – Robert’ sister bought a new house. We had been in it once while it was under construction, but this was our first visit to the finished house. We are in the combination – kitchen, family dining room, family room and Robert comes over to me – “Where is the bathroom?” “It is your sister’s house and our first time here, why are you asking me?” “No, really, where it is -no joking around.” “Go back through the kitchen owards the garage we had to come into the house through as we are not allowed to use the front door and just before you reach the door to the garage turn right.” Even when I have never been to the bathroom somewhere – I know where it is, wherever we go, although in this case I had seen it when we walked in.

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