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If someone were to lend me a time machine and ask me to go back and figure out exactly what first set me down my road to dedicated descriptivism, I would first ask them if perhaps there wasn’t a better use for this marvelous contraption. But if they persisted, the coordinates I’d start with would be my elementary school days. I suspect it was some time around then that I first asked for permission to do something and was met with one of the archetypal prescriptions.
“Can I go to the bathroom?”, I surely must have asked, and just as surely a teacher must have answered, “I don’t know, can you?”
The irritation that I felt at this correction was so severe that even though I can’t remember when this happened, nor who did it to me, I still can call to mind the way it made me seethe. It was clear to me that the pedant was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to explain it. So, at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to settle a two-decade-old grudge, let’s look at whether it makes sense to correct this. I say that the answer is no — or at the very least, that one oughtn’t to correct it so snootily.
Let’s examine the “error” that the authority figure is correcting. Can, we are told, addresses the ability to do something, whereas may addresses permission. Mom said I can count to ten means that dear ol’ Mum believes in my ability to count to ten, although she may not want me to do so; Mom said I may count to ten means that Mum is allowing me to do so, although she need not believe that I am able to.*
At any given time, there are a lot of things that one is capable of doing (can do) and a lot of things that one is permitted to do (may do), and a few things that fall into both categories. The prescriptivist idea is that there is a fairly clear distinction between the two categories, though, and so it is important to distinguish them.
Except, well, it’s not so important after all; can and may were tightly intertwined in early English, and were never fully separated. The OED lists an obsolete usage [II.4a] of may as meaning “be able; can”. This is first attested in Old English, and continues through to at least 1645. Furthermore, may meaning “expressing objective possibility” [II.5] is attested from Old English to the present day (although it is noted as being rare now). Examples of these are given in (1) and (2). So we see that may does not always address the issue of permission, that may has encroached upon can‘s territory at times in the past and continues to do so to this day.
(1) No man may separate me from thee. 
(2) Youth clubs may be found in all districts of the city. 
As for can, there’s no historical evidence I found of it referring to permission in the distant past. Back then, may was apparently the dominant one, stealing usages from can. The OED gives a first citation for can meaning “to be allowed to” in 1879, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and does call the usage colloquial, at least on the British side of the pond. But still, we’ve got it attested 130 years ago by a former Poet Laureate of the UK. That’s a pretty good lineage for the permission usage.
Furthermore, I think (at least in contemporary American English) that the may I usage is old-fashioned to the point of sounding stilted or even affected outside of highly formal contexts. Just to back up my intuition, here’s the Google Books N-grams chart comparing May I go and Can I go:
You can see there’s a changeover in the mid-1960s, when the usage levels of May I finish plunging and Can I starts rocketing away. As you well know, this sort of fairly sudden change in relative frequency tends to generate a backlash against the newly-prominent form as a sign of linguistic apocalypse, so there’s no real surprise that people would loudly oppose permissive Can I. As always, the loud opposition to it is one of the surest signs that it’s passed a point of no return. By my youth, Can I was ensconced as the question of choice, and nowadays, I doubt many of our kids are getting being corrected on it — though it remains prominent enough in our zeitgeist to function as a set-up for a range of uninspired jokes.
So historically, what can we say of can and may and permission and ability? We’ve seen something of a historical switch. In the distant past, may could indicate either permission or ability, while can was restricted to ability. Over time, may‘s domain has receded, and can‘s has expanded. In modern usage, can has taken on permission senses as well as its existing ability senses. May, on the other hand, has become largely restricted to the permission sense, although there are some “possibility”-type usages that still touch on ability, especially when speaking of the future:
(3) We may see you at Breckenridge then.
The can expansion is a bit recent in historical terms, but that still means it’s been acceptable for over a hundred years — judging by the Tennyson citation — and commonplace for the last fifty or so. The recency explains the lingering resentment at permissive can, but it doesn’t justify it. Permissive can is here to stay, and there’s no reason to oppose it.**
*: Not to telegraph my argument, but even here I find Mom said I can count to sound more like a statement of permission than ability.
**: I have some thoughts on whether it’s really even possible to draw a clear line between permission and ability — in essence addressing the question of whether the smearing together of can and may is an accident or inevitability. I’ll try to put them together at some point & link to them, but given my history of failing to follow through with follow-up posts, I’m not going to leave it as only a possibility, not a promise.
This blog was linked to a while ago in a Reddit discussion of uninterested and disinterested. (My opinion on them is that uninterested is restricted to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “impartial”, and that’s an opinion based on both historical and modern usage. In fact, despite the dire cries that people are causing the two words to smear together, it actually looks like the distinction between them is growing over time.)
The reason I bring this up again is that one of the Redditors was proposing that having a strong distinction could make sense, because:
“Some people draw a distinction between disinterested and uninterested. There is nothing to lose and perhaps subtlety to be gained by using that distinction yourself. Therefore observing the distinction should always be recommended.”
But I’ve already asked my question about this in the title: is there really nothing to lose? Is there no cost to maintaining a strict distinction between words? Or, more generally, is there no cost to maintaining a grammar rule?
Well, in a myopic sense, no, there’s nothing much to lose by having the rule. In the case of uninterested and disinterested, it would be hard to argue that not being able to use disinterested to mean “unconcerned” is a substantial loss. It can be done, though: I, for instance, am a great lover of alliteration, and as a result, I like to have synonyms with as many different initial letters as possible. There’s a cost, small though it may be, to not having disinterested available as I’m constructing sentences. But that’s a triviality.
A more substantial consequence is that it introduces a discontinuity in the historical record. If we decide that from now on disinterested only means “impartial”, then historical and current uses of the “unconcerned” sense will be opaque to people taught the hard-and-fast rule. That’s problematic because, despite the belief of some people that this is an illiterate usage, it’s actually common even for good writers to use. This, again, isn’t a big problem; we regularly understand misused words, especially ones whose intended meanings are very close to their actual meanings. Saying that we can’t have a rule of grammar because sometimes it isn’t followed is the sort of whateverism that people accuse descriptivists of, not a reasonable concern.*
No, the true cost is a higher-level cost: the overhead of having another distinction. This might also seem trivial. After all, we have tons and tons of usage rules and distinctions, and a lexical distinction like this is really little more than remembering a definition. But let me illustrate my point with an example I recently saw on Tumblr (sorry for the illegibility):
The distinction here is well-established: affect is almost always the verb, effect almost always the noun.** Yet here we see that it is costly to maintain the distinction. First, it’s costly to remember which homophone goes in which role. Second, it’s costly to make an error, as people may mock you for it. Third, it’s very easy to get it wrong, as the replier did here.
If there were really no downside to adding an additional rule, we’d expect to see every possibly useful distinction be made. We’d expect, for instance, to have a clear singular/plural second-person distinction in English (instead of just you). I’d expect to see an inclusive/exclusive first-person plural distinction as well, as I sometimes want to establish whether I’m saying we to include the person I’m speaking to or not. The subjunctive wouldn’t be disappearing, nor would whom.
But all distinctions are not made. In fact, relatively few of the possible distinctions we could make at the word level are made. And that suggests that even if the reasons I’ve listed for not maintaining a lot of distinctions aren’t valid, there must be something that keeps us from making all the distinctions we could make.
So next time someone says “there oughta be a rule”, think about why there isn’t. Rules aren’t free, and only the ones whose benefits outweigh their costs are going to be created and maintained. The costs and benefits change over time, and that’s part of why languages are forever changing.
*: Of course, if the distinction is regularly violated, then it’s hardly whateverist to say that it doesn’t exist.
**: Affect is a noun in psychology, effect a verb meaning “to cause” that is largely reviled by prescriptivists.
I’m a little surprised that I’ve been blogging for almost five years now and never got around to talking about whether there’s a difference between the words disinterested and uninterested. I suppose I’ve avoided it because the matter has already been excellently discussed by many others, and I didn’t think I needed to add my voice to that choir. But now it’s become something of a glaring omission in my mind, so it’s time to fix that.
Let’s skip to the end and fill in the middle later: there is a difference, but in Mark Liberman’s words, it’s “emergent and incomplete, rather than traditional and under siege”. For some people, there’s a clean separation, for others an overlap. In the language in general, uninterested is limited to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “unbiased”.
How do two distinct meanings arise from such similar words? The problem lies at the root — namely, interest, which can be with (1a) or without (1b) bias:
(1a) I espouse a relatively dull orthodox Christianity and my interest in Buddhism is strictly cultural, aesthetic.
(1b) Upon consignment of your car, it’s in my interest to do everything possible to present your car to potential buyers.
So, when one adds a negative prefix to interest(ed), is it merely disavowing concern, or bias as well? I don’t know of any inherent difference between dis- and un- that would solve that question, and historically, no one else seemed to either. Though I don’t have relative usage statistics, the Oxford English Dictionary cites both forms with both meanings early in their history:
(2a) How dis-interested are they of all Worldly matters, since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea. [c1677-1684]
(2b) The soul‥sits now as the most disinterested Arbiter, and impartial judge of her own works, that she can be. 
(2c) He is no cold, uninterested, and uninteresting advocate for the cause he espouses. 
(2d) What think you of uninterested Men, who value the Publick Good beyond their own private Interest? 
But we both know that it’s no longer the 18th century, and I strongly suspect that you find (2d) to be a bit odd. The OED agrees, and marks this meaning (uninterested as “unbiased”) as obsolete. I looked over the first 50 examples of uninterested in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) as well and found no examples like (2d). If it still exists, it’s rare or dialectal. Uninterested meaning “unconcerned” (2c) is, of course, alive and well.
So really, it’s not a question of whether people are confusing uninterested and disinterested, but rather a question of whether disinterested has two possible meanings. We’re certainly told that they are, and that it is imperative that disinterested be kept separate. For instance:
“The constant misuse of disinterested for uninterested is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning.”
Is it really? Suppose disinterested could just as easily take either meaning, and that this somehow rendered it unusable.* You’d still be able to use unbiased, impartial, objective, or unprejudiced for the one meaning, and indifferent, unconcerned, and uninterested for the other. We’re not losing this distinction at all.
Setting aside such misguided passion, let’s look at how disinterested actually is (and has been) used. As we saw in (2a) & (2b), disinterested started out being used for both meanings. This persisted, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), through the 19th century without complaint. Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary disinterestedly lists both senses, and it’s not until 1889 that MWDEU finds the first complaint. Opposition to disinterested for “unconcerned” appears to have steadily grown since then, especially in America.
But despite all the grousing, “unbiased” disinterested is hardly in dire straits. MWDEU’s searches found that 70% of all uses of disinterested in their files between 1934 and the 1980s were of this sense, and that this percentage actually increased during the 1980s. Furthermore, the MWDEU notes that the use of disinterested for “unconcerned” usually has a subtle difference from uninterested. Disinterested is often used to indicate that someone has lost interest as opposed to having been uninterested from the start.** This fits with other un-/dis- pairs, such as unarmed/disarmed.
Summary: Far from losing an existing distinction, it seems that we’re witnessing a distinction emerging. Uninterested is now restricted to an “unconcerned” meaning. Disinterested covers impartiality, but it also can take the “uninterested” meaning, often indicating specifically that interest has been lost. Because many people object to this sense of disinterested, you may want to avoid it if you’re uninterested in a fight. Will the distinction ever fully emerge, and the overlap be lost? Would that this desk were a time desk…
*: I think it goes without saying that having multiple meanings does not make a word unusable. In case it doesn’t, consider the much more confusing words fly, lead, and read.
**: Compare, for instance, I grew disinterested to I grew uninterested. I definitely prefer the former.
**: MWDEU notes that while the distributions of the two senses overlap, it’s more clear than people let on; “unbiased” disinterested tends to modify an abstract noun like love, whereas “unconcerned” disinterested tends to modify humans, and appear with in in tow.