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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.
I’ve re-read an old column by Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor (a job title I would not have thought existed), discussing a complaint that Noam Chomsky committed a linguistic error by using anticipate in place of expect.
The column was a rollercoaster for me, because my many interactions with honest-to-goodness prescriptivists has rendered me unable to detect well-crafted satires until it’s too late. I swallowed Chivers’s faux stance, clucking my tongue all the while, only to realize at the end, pulling into the station, that there was no real danger there at all. In fact, I felt pretty happy for having read it.
But I had committed myself to becoming miserable from reading something, and in the idiotic hopes of providing that misery, I proceeded to the comments. Why do I do this? Is it some misguided penance for imagined crimes? Well, whatever, here’s a comment:
“Thinking of ’10 items or less’ reminded me of another sign of the times, ‘this door is alarmed’ – alarmed, presumably, by the widespread misuse of the English language.”
Maybe I’ve been suckered once again, and that’s not a complaint from the commenter — but it probably is. And if so, it’s a foolish one; alarmed here is a predicative adjective formed from the past participle of the verb alarm. This sort of functional shift is really common in English, and very productive (by which I mean that it can be generated on the fly and with a wide range of verbs). And it doesn’t cause any distress in other instances, such as “the trap is set”, “the painting is finished”, “the parking meters are bagged”, “the door is locked”, and so on.
It’s not a hard thing to notice that there isn’t really anything unusual or wrong about this sign. I mean, yeah, I can see thinking at first “hmm, that’s an odd turn of phrase.” But it really doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to see that it’s nothing unordinary. And in general, a lot of the misguided complaints I see are ones where a small amount of thought will reveal that, if the construction isn’t obviously right, it at least isn’t obviously wrong.
Which is a little bit weird, isn’t it? So many of the complaints about grammar are based on this idea that people are saying things without thinking about them (e.g., you’re and your) or saying things only because they hear other people saying them and thus assume they’re acceptable. But in fact, that’s just what the complainers are doing; either they’re not thinking at all and just repeating the condemnation they heard from some some authority figure, or they are thinking, but only in order to amass evidence against the usage.
If you want to be an authority on language — and especially if you’re really as devoted to improving and protecting the language as so many people say they are — then you can’t fall prey to the knee-jerk “doesn’t sound right to me” reaction. You can’t decide you want to complain about a usage and then sit and think only about reasons to discredit it. And, similarly, you can’t do the opposite, deciding that you want to accept something and then only looking for reasons to accept it.* If you can’t do that, then you’re as lazy about policing the language as you think others are about using it.
*: This is a problem that is much rarer, of course, but I’ll confess to the occasional attack of it when I attempt to argue that some rare or confusing bit of my dialect ought to be considered standard in formal written prose just because it sounds fine to me. “What do you mean we shouldn’t use positive anymore here? You’re trampling my linguistic heritage!”
I’ve mentioned my fondness for compiling historical grammatical errors as a reminder that we are not, point of fact, destroying what used to be a perfect language. Previously, I’d found unnecessary quotation marks in a 1960 World Series celebration, it’s for its in a 1984 John Mellencamp video, and an apostrophe incorrectly marking a plural in a famous 1856 editorial cartoon. But these were all punctuation-based errors. Today’s is a proper grammatical error, and one that people full-throatedly bemoan nowadays.
I found this error by admitting to myself that I am secretly an old man, and coming to terms with it by spending much of the summer sitting in parks, reading books on naval history and international relations. One of them, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory, tells the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, who discovered Antarctica and created the country’s first accurate naval charts for the Pacific islands. It’s a good book, but then it turned great by having two interesting old quotes four pages apart.
In the first, the Expedition is approaching Fiji and takes on another pilot due to the many coral reefs in the area:
“Wilkes felt it necessary to secure yet another experienced pilot at Tonga named Tom Granby. ‘You will find when we get to the Islands,’ Wilkes assured Granby, ‘that I know as much about them as you do.’ Granby smiled. ‘You may know all about them on paper,’ he replied, ‘but when you come to the goings in and goings out, you will see who knows best, you or myself.’”
Myself here is clearly non-standard, as no first-person pronoun has appeared anywhere in the sentence. The standard rule for reflexives, known as Principle A in Government and Binding theory, and discussed in pretty much every introductory syntax class, is that a reflexive must be bound in its governing category. Or, to say it in a more theory-agnostic and somewhat looser way, the coreferent of the reflexive (I/me for myself) has to appear within the smallest clause that contains the reflexive, and structurally “above” the reflexive. The syntactic specifics they depend on which syntactic theory you’re adhering to, but luckily they don’t really matter here; there’s no possible coreferent anywhere within the sentence, so any standard definition of Principle A will label the sentence ungrammatical.
Turning from this syntactic jungle to the Fijian jungle, a few pages later the Expedition lands on an island and hikes to its peak:
“Almost two years at sea had left them ill-prepared for such a demanding hike. ‘I have seldom witnessed a party so helpless as ourselves appeared,’ Wilkes wrote, ‘in comparison with the natives and white residents, who ran over the rocks like goats.’”
Again, it’s obvious that this is a non-standard usage, since no first-person plural noun phrase appears in the sentence to justify the reflexive.
Now, I’ve been marking these as non-standard rather than incorrect, and there’s a reason for this that is more than a desire to be non-judgmental. These supposedly erroneous uses of reflexives are widespread — so much so that I’d argue they’re at least borderline acceptable in many people’s forms of Informal Spoken English. That means that they ought to be explainable, that there ought to be some option in the rules of English that allow you to consider these uses acceptable without having to change much else in the language. I’m going to speculate for the rest of this post, so feel free to bail out here.
Here’s my idea, which I don’t think is novel.* Reflexives are allowed only when, in some sense, there’s a sufficiently salient coreferent for the reflexive. Salience is standardly assessed syntactically, meaning that a coreferent appears structurally above the reflexive, and close enough to remain salient when the reflexive appears. But there is pragmatic salience as well, for people and things who haven’t been explicitly mentioned but remain prominent in the discourse all the same. And what is more pragmatically salient than the speaker? In both of these cases, it seems that the speaker is thinking of themselves as sufficiently salient to trigger the reflexive.
My intuition is that there are more instances of inappropriate reflexives for first person (myself, ourselves) than second person (yourself), and more of either than for third person (himself, herself, itself, themselves). I did a quick corpus search on COCA for sentence-initial As for *self, and the intuition wasn’t fully borne out; as for myself was the most common, but combined as for him/herself showed up almost as often (64 to 60), and as for yourself only registered one instance. So maybe I’m totally off-base on the specifics.** But something is going on that allows so many people to view reflexives as standard in positions that we don’t expect to see them, and like this or not, that needs explained.
*: If you know of any references to discussions about this issue, please share. I’m not primarily a syntactician, and didn’t see anything in a cursory search of the literature, but I really doubt this discussion hasn’t been had before.
**: I think the as for *self construction may be a special case. Most of the third-person uses look to be about how some third party views themself, and while one can state one’s own introspections and speculate about a third party’s, it’s a little bit weird to tell someone their own introspections. That could artificially deflate the second-person counts.
I think the best explanation of this construction may be as an indicator that we are switching mental spaces, if you’re familiar with that theory. Saying as for Xself establishes a new mental space focused on X and their inner workings or opinions, rather than the more generic mental space of the rest of the conversation. Sorry, I’m really going down a rabbit hole here.
I first encountered the Grammar Sins Tumblr when they started following me on Twitter. From the name, you probably know what to expect: a catalogue of venial sins being treated as though they were mortal. Someone misspelled something; this means English is dying. Someone used a comma splice; that distant humming you hear is Charles Dickens spinning in his grave.
Whereas normally looking at this would set me down a road you’ve no doubt grown as sick of as I have, talking about the silliness of the obsession with minor errors and the look-at-me nature of correcting these everyday missteps, today I’m going to calm down and focus before I rant.
So let’s talk specifically about the presence of non-native English speakers and their mistakes in these peeveblogs. It was this recent post that galled me, describing the misspelling of veggie as vegi as “unforgivable”.
Now, that’s cheap hyperbole any way you slice it — frankly, I’m not sure of many offenses that are more forgivable than a comprehensible misspelling on a corner-store sign. But the thing that really ground on me was that the next post revealed that the sign was up in a bodega, which, assuming the author is as careful with words as she expects others to be, suggests that the signmaker’s native language is not English.
Is this what we have become as a society? Are there no more pressing concerns in this world than whether non-native speakers make minor spelling mistakes? This isn’t some one-off whine, either; it’s something of a trend both at Grammar Sins (see here, here, here) and for peevebloggers in general (here, here). Unforgivable is making fun of mistakes in a second language, not making the mistakes.
Isn’t this the sort of thing that Americans have traditionally accused our mortal enemies — the French — of doing? In my youth, it was a standard belief that the French were real jerks, because if you went there and spoke in broken French, instead of switching to English, they’d supposedly just complain that you weren’t speaking French right and turn up their noses. This was viewed as incredibly rude; unfairly, of course, because it’s even ruder to assume that people in another country ought to speak your language.
Nevertheless, we Americans got quite self-righteous about the supposed language snobbishness that this represented. Now, it seems our self-righteousness has been supplanted by the very judgmentalism that we once condemned. And it’s surprisingly cross-class. It’s difficult not to sense a connection between the impulses that drive these blogs begrudging the second-language greengrocers their apostrophes and those that drive English Only legislation.
I’m just touchy about this kind of thing because I know how strong a barrier language can be. Learning a second language is really damn hard, and it’s a bit rich to mock people for their imperfect acquisition, especially in a society that’s so monolithically monolingual as ours. I’m even touchier about this because I have school friends who are far smarter than me, but lack my casual intimacy with English and thus seem dumber, and are frankly screwed if they want to get a good job here. And I’m touchiest about this because I have a lot of first- or second-generation immigrant friends whose older family members are borderline shut-ins because their limited English skills make it nearly impossible to participate in American society.* So I get pretty hot when people’s analysis of this problem amounts to “Ha ha! They spelled something wrong! *facepalm/derpface*”
Just in case it’s not obvious, I don’t mean that spelling and grammatical errors should be given carte blanche. Stores should try to get proofreaders for any signs that are going to be up awhile, and I would be happy to correct any store’s signage for a small fee (hint). But being a prig about it and making fun of people behind their backs is childish. This is a social sin far outstripping that of even egregious language errors — especially when the error is in a second language.
*: Combining those last two into a single anecdote, my friend’s mom was an electrical engineer in China, and is a waitress in a Chinese restaurant here.