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The Vine: January 4, 2012

Submitted by on January 4, 2012 – 11:22 AM52 Comments

Mine is a question involving grammar and preserving my sanity. I work for a very wealthy family who, rather than solely passing on genetic markers, pass on one particularly grievous grammatical error. It started with the matriarch of the family and was passed down to two of her daughters, followed by an employee of one of said daughters.

When asking me to do something, they start their inquiry with "may you please." An example from today was a request to send a wire transfer, followed by "May you please let me know when this goes out?" I've gotten two "may you please" requests today and they frankly make me want to put my head through the wall, much like, but more effectively so than, Situation Sorrentino.

The employee sends me multiple email requests daily so my question is, do I just need to suck it up and deal, or is there a subtle way to tell her that this is not proper English? I realize saying that something to the matriarch or her daughters is a lost cause and could lead to a lost job, but I feel like it's irresponsible of me to allow this to be passed on any further. Also, I feel like a little bit of me dies inside every time this happens. HELP!

May I please give a grammar smackdown?

Dear May,

It's two issues, really: 1) is it wrong; and 2) if it is wrong, should you say so.

I would say it's wrong. "Grievous" is a bit strong; the usage sounds like an overcorrection, in an attempt to sound more formal or courteous, or perhaps a regionalism in the vein of "might could" or "could do." Googling the string "'may you please' incorrect" turns up a lot of proofreading requests from non-English speakers, interestingly. That may not apply here, but it seems like sometimes it's a translation tic…vestigial code, kind of.

Would I correct it out of a document I'm copy-editing? Yes. Would I mention it in this case? No. Unless she's using it in public-facing documents or correspondence, it's likely not worth it to point it out, and even then, it is probably an attempt to seem more polite (not to mention that people see, and fail to register, felonies against the language on a daily basis), and not really something you need to get her out of her own way on.

I get that it's annoying because you hear it all the time, but welcome to having a boss. If it weren't this, it would be the weird clicky noises she makes when sealing an envelope, know what I'm saying? What I also get is something maybe you didn't intend to tell me: that part of your irritation may stem from resentment of, and desire to feel superior to, the "very wealthy family." This isn't a judgment; resenting, and wish to feel superior to, all sorts of people is a founding principle of the internet, and also working is a hassle, so seethe away. My point is that their relative privilege isn't pertinent to their grammar — but you brought it up anyway, so it's significant to you somehow. And if it's coming through to me, possibly it's coming through to them. Something to keep an eye on, perhaps.

Short form: the usage is wrong; sharing that fact with the user will not improve your life.

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  • Jeanne says:

    I'm with Sars on this. It's one of those things that, while annoying as hell, one should let go if at all possible because the fight isn't worth it. You'd just wind up making things even more stressful for yourself and possibly others.

    Very few people spell my name right, including several managers at work. It used to drive me up a wall but over the course of my nearly 30 years of life I've learned to let it go. It's just not worth the hassle.

  • RK says:

    It almost seems like an overcorrection secondary to the the classic "Can I…?" "I don't know, *can* you…?" Sigh. "Fine. MAY I…?" conversation. I'm not entirely convinced that it's wrong, but it certainly does sound awkward, and I think that "Would you…?" or even "Might you…?" would be the better choices.

  • A says:

    My (otherwise intelligent, articulate) boss talks about "antidotal" evidence. Unfortunately, I didn't bring this to her attention when I started working here, 10+ years ago. Now I'm stuck.

    Another usage issue that is more akin to May's issue is the (I think mis-)use of "kindly," as in "We kindly ask you to respond…." This is rampant where I work, and I think it's a Britishism (or a mutation of one).

  • Melanie says:

    I wonder if the "very wealthy" tidbit was meant to imply significant education/running in circles where people speak well? I didn't get resentment at all, though I see why the inclusion of that info might read that way.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Melanie: Maybe. That and the "genetic markers" mention…I don't know. The resentment may not be of the wealth itself, but there's a reason those things were left in, even if the LW wasn't aware of it.

  • Rinaldo says:

    My reaction turned out to be almost the same as Sarah's, right down the line. The usage isn't standard, certainly; but I too thought immediately of regional usages like "might could" or "ever how many," or dropping the occasional final G from -ing in everyday speech, which I would hate to see erased from the language until we're all speaking the same uniform syntax and dialect at all times. This even sounds rather quaint and humorous to me, though I understand that I don't have to hear it at work every day.

    Like other such non-standardisms, I would edit it out of writing that's supposed to go out and impress others (though it sounds as if that's not where this comes up, anyway). Otherwise, what she said: live with it (and be glad it's no worse).

  • Meredith B. says:

    I am havening to agree with Sars. /wink

    I worked for a health care company where the use of 'preventative' (instead of 'preventive') was overwhelming. Sometimes you just have to learn to shrug it off, or it really will make you nuts.

  • Valerie says:

    ….at least they say please.

  • Allison says:

    The tone of this letter is hitting me differently than Sars, for the first time ever. I think don't think it's news to Grammar Smackdown that this is an overcorrection, but that it annoys her exactly because it's an overcorrection. "May you please notice how my grammar is so much more correct than everyone else, perhaps due to my superior breeding and flush bank account?" And G.S. just wants to scream back, "Your usage is nonstandard and your superiority in doubt! DOUBT!" How much of this is that the family really is on a power trip and how much is unwarranted defensiveness, I can't tell, but I suspect there is some of both involved.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Actually, I think we agree, @Allison. My take on it is basically what you just said…but I also edited the original letter for a number of comma splices. Not to sell the LW out here, because it doesn't mean she's wrong on the narrow point; it's more the overall algebra. Complaints about grammar of boss + usage errors of own / non-pertinent mention of boss's wealth/implication of inherited privilege = grammar not necessarily real source of annoyance.

    But…that's just how I make the pizza. Heh.

  • MizShrew says:

    I'd agree with others about leaving it alone, but I suspect that at some point the mother/daughters will use it in a letter of some kind and then the LW could (politely, cautiously) suggest a correction. But if they're not about to make an ass of themselves on paper? They'll never thank you for the grammar lesson, and the potential for resentment just isn't worth it.

  • Cora says:

    Two things strike me here: as I read it, given the "genetic markers" phrase and the usage itself, I immediately pictured a family from India. I used to work in a university international student office, and thus came across a huge number of Indians-from-India; not surprisingly, they speak a very British English, and while it might not be a Britishism, it really makes me think "from India."

    The second idea is that of wealth tied to educational level, which is related to Allison's idea. I think there's an assumption that since they're well-off, they must be able to afford a fabulous education, therefore should know not to overcorrect, and that's maybe pissing off LW. I just came across this in a P.D> James novel, actually; wherein Adam Dalgliesh has a flashback to his midteens and meeting a very rich man who, it surprises Adam, turns out to be stupid. (After which, being a P.D. James novel, I had to go update my cross-referenced index/flowchart of the twenty more characters she introduced in the following paragraph, while suppressing the giggles at yet another person wearing "fawn" trousers.)

  • Jessi In GA says:

    I sympathize! My boss says "irregardless" on a regular basis. It makes me get all stabby.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    But, irregardless of that fact….

    Sorry, couldn't help it.

  • Leigh says:

    My 13-year-old daughter says this, and it drives me absolutely up the wall. I have no idea where she picked it up and I correct her every time she says it, but it seems to be a verbal habit she can't break. I really do appreciate that she's so polite, but IT'S JUST WRONG.

    So I feel for the LW–it's like nails on a chalkboard, truly–but I'm going to have to agree with the others in thise case. With a boss, this is something that's best left alone.

    But if someone has a suggestion for how to get my daughter to stop saying it, I am ALL EARS.

  • JenK says:

    How timely. My four-year-old daughter has recently started saying "may you" to us. "May you please get me some orange juice?" In this case, it is an overcorrection. We're (…still) working on polite ways to ask for things rather than demanding them. It's catching on, but she's extending the word "may" to every question now instead of just "may I" situations. And this meant that, when I read the letter, the matriarch, her daughters, and the employee were all four-year-olds trying not to say "I want."

  • Rachel says:

    It sounds almost like a benediction to me, and if the LW could hear it in her head that way it might make her giggle a little bit instead of going directly to the STABBY RAGEY place. Thus, I give you:

    The Office Worker's Prayer:

    May you please always find a fresh pot of coffee in the break room.

    May you please never get a paper cut (especially a manila folder cut, which can slice through bone).

    May you please send the correspondence on time.

    May you please refrain from strangling your boss.

  • Erin in SLC says:

    I understand that the superior/subordinate dyad limits this, but surely the LW has occasional reasons to make a request of the boss. Sounds to me like a great opportunity to demonstrate correct syntax: "Would you please let me know" whatever?

    I do this once in a while when I get an e-mail stating that someone was "suppose to" do something or something "needs fixed." "Oh, I'm sure Lyudmilla didn't know she was supposed to shred those forms." "Thanks for telling the plumber what needed fixing."

    Maybe people take the hint. Probably, they don't. At least you can finally sleep at night, knowing you've done all you could. I've caught such a hint just once or twice, but I've always been grateful for the face-saving delivery.

  • Bev says:

    I wouldn't have the nerve to do this to most bosses I have had, but I immediately thought that the correct response to a "may you " question was not a correction, but the response, "I may."

    I doubt many people, especially your employer would like the idea that you MAY do what they asked. Whether your employer would respond to this well, or very badly, I can not begin to guess.

  • Andrea says:

    My husband uses this overcorrection all the time, and it sets my teeth on edge. I correct him, usually in order not to do whatever was requested ("May you change the laundry that is way downstairs in the cold and possibly flooded basement?" "Oh my GOD, why can't you ask questions properly? Do it yourself!"), but I wouldn't correct my boss if she said it.

  • Beth C. says:

    I work for a company that has a lot of international clients, and like Sars mentioned, that's a tic I've seen a lot from clients in Asia and parts of Europe who are translating their own words into English (Can to please… is also very common). It's very possible the family picked it up from a relative who came from somewhere else. I just choose to take it as trying to be polite and, as one other commenter said, at least they say please.

    I do agree that if they are regularly using it in public documents you may want to say something, but otherwise it is wise to just let it go. It doesn't really make them sound stupid or illiterate, more just old fashioned or stuffy, so it really isn't a battle worth waging, especially with a boss.

  • momcat says:

    I found this whole discussion funny. One of my coworkers used to say (facetiously), "I beg your humble pardon." "May you please" reminded me of that phrase. Overpolite beats underpolite in my book!

  • phineyj says:

    @A, re "We kindly ask you to respond…" I am British and that phrase is used where a mildly threatening undertone is needed, as in "Will you kindly refrain from putting your feet up on the seat"…so it rather has the opposite effect to a polite overcorrection!

  • A says:

    @phineyj, I have no objection to "Will you kindly refrain…" (or variations thereon). It's putting the "kindly" in the speaker's mouth, as it were, that perplexes me. We aren't doing something kindly; we're asking you to, aren't we? Or is that distinction irrelevant on the other side of the Atlantic?

  • MizShrew says:

    I think the "will you kindly" is actually shorthand for "Will you be so kind as to." So it's not so much asking the person to do something kindly as it is asking them to be kind and do something. And yes, I usually see/hear it as a bit of a rebuke vs. being overly polite.

  • Amy Newman says:

    I worked for a not-for-profit organization that had, for years, in its By-laws that meetings would be handled in accordance with "Robber's Rules of Order." I still giggle. Pick your battles, May… life is long.

  • Colleen says:

    Oh my gosh, my boss has a handful of cringe-worthy ones, as well:

    "Myrimad" instead of myriad. The emphasis is on the first syllable, like so: "MEER-e-mad."

    "Hybird" instead of hybrid. He pronounces it "highbird."

    "Defunk" instead of defunct. I used to think he was accidentally leaving off the t when he said the word…until he used "defunk" in an email. Took everything I had not to reply with Parliament lyrics ("we want defunk. Gotta have that funk!").

    "Irregardless" instead of regardless. This one barely registers with me, anymore…

  • Kerry says:

    My boss writes "we are acceptable [to that request]" in letters so often, that now it sounds CORRECT to me and I have to make a point not to use the same phrase in my own letters. (Although it seems like maybe that *could* correct, no? Able to accept, and all that? Or is this the grammar version of Stockholm Syndrome?)

    My old boss misused "begs the question." Which is fairly common, so I never made an issue of it . . . but then he went above and beyond, working it into his personal venacular, saying stuff like "the question I'm begging, is . . . " Drove me bonkers.

  • attica says:

    My boss is an 'anyways' and 'all's' kind of dude. And never watched Deadwood. Because I did watch Deadwood, I get all nostalgic for Bullock instead of stabby.

    My favorite waiter always exhorts us "Please to enjoy" (and often pronounces it as 'enyoy.')Flove that.

  • MsC says:

    You can try to gently point it out by rephrasing in a reply, etc, but I doubt it will have much effect. I worked at an office where everyone there (approx 30 people), had somehow picked up the habit of using 'gleem' for 'glean'. At first I thought it was a regional pronunciation thing, until I started getting emails requesting that I look at something and tell the person what I could 'gleem' from it. No matter how often I replied using glean/gleaned, 'gleem' reigned supreme in that office.

  • RobinP says:

    It's also possible that the employer realizes she's wrong. Once family/regional quirks enter your speech patterns, they tend to stick. I say, "might could.". And I get it. It's just not real high on my list of vices to fix. If they employer does know, calling it out would be especially unwelcome.

    If she's using it in public-facing documents, then I retract this comment.

  • Georgia says:

    @Rachel: I read this as a benediction (or curse) as well. "May you be infested with the fleas of one thousand camels."

    Actually, though, this sort of construction could help the parents whose kids are using this phrasing. When the kid asks, "May you get me some juice?," you can respond, "And may you start learning to say 'Could you.'"

  • Tracey says:

    I have to agree that, where bosses are concerned, it's often better to just let minor grammatical issues go. Back in the early days of computer networking, we talked about Local Area Networks, or LANs (pronounced as a word, not as separate letters). My boss always, always, always said "LAND." Drove me up a tree every time, and there were lots of times, because we were developing a new system of networked computers. But he was the boss and would not have taken kindly to my pointing out his egregious mispronunciation.

    The "may you please" phrase doesn't bother me, but probably because it sounds like a regionalism, and I enjoy regionalisms.

    "Robbers Rules of Order" is cracking me up. That's even better than the receipt I have for a "Chip-n-Dale" bench that I bought at an auction.

  • RJ says:

    @MsC: So now I'm picturing an Iron Chef competition where the secret ingredient is toothpaste and the Chairman is shouting, "Whose gleem reigns supreme?" Good times. :-)

  • HollyH says:

    Okay! This provides me with an opportunity to ask:

    I know that "may you pour me a drink?" is wrong. I know that it ought to be, "would you?" or "might you?" or "could you?"

    But over the past decade, I've run into a number of people using "may" when I believe "might" is called for. Sometimes it's when I'm in an editorial role, and I can suggest that it ought to be "might" instead.

    What's driving me nuts is that I find it really difficult to articulate WHY. I know that there are Reasons, but I'm not sure how to explain the reasons. I blame this on the fact that I coincidentally skipped some classes in grade school where technical grammar was taught (I cannot diagram a sentence, either), and instead picked up proper usage from wide reading. So I "just know" that "might you?" for a polite question sounds right, while if you use "may" or "might" in return, you are expressing conditional acceptance (if you intend to do what is asked, you should always respond, "i would"), but I otherwise find it hard to explain why "might" works when it does, and when it's actually proper to use "may" instead.

    All help appreciated! It's frustrating to just shriek inside my head, "can't you HEAR the difference? Isn't it obvious?"

    Meanwhile, my grammar pet peeve of the last 10 years is the apparent rise in British usage of the construction "he was sat". This is something that I swear to god I never ran across in the 90s (and I was in fan groups that had a fair number of British members, so I was editing fic even then), and then starting in the early 00s, I started seeing it more and more. "He was sat on the end of the bed", "she was sat at the computer".

    This drives me up THE WALL. Where did it come from? (I suspect it is a regionalism that started gaining popularity in Britain due to some television show or something, but I don't believe I have actually heard it in any British program I've watched, so it's hard to trace.)

    But I am ashamed to admit that I don't know what to call "was sitting" as opposed to "was sat", so again, I find it hard to explain why it's technically wrong. Except to try to point out that "he was sat on the bed" sounds like someone else is forcing him to sit there, and what on earth is wrong with "he was sitting" in the first place?

    … Perhaps that is an issue for another Vine. It's not an acute problem, just a background one. Still, it bugs.

  • Chrissi says:

    Cora, I knew I couldn't be the only one that noticed that! Every time I read a PD James novel, I'm just waiting to see how many pages it is until someone is wearing fawn trousers or a fawn jumper. She is overly fond of that word.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    When I was a kid I didn't know fawn was a color. I thought people were wearing actual baby deer skins and my horror knew no bounds.

    …oy. Early reading, sometimes it takes you to the dark place.

  • MsC says:

    @RJ 'The hint of mint in this dish reminds me of the gentle breezes of my youth'.

    The fact that it was always spelled 'gleem' instead of gleam just made it better too. At least it wasn't something that was used in documents for outside of the office.

  • Barbara says:

    Here's the one that I'm trying to get my kids to stop saying "On accident" instead of "by accident." Drives me absolutely batty!

  • Miz A says:

    @attica : YES! I actually use "anyways" from time to time and it always reminds me of Swearengen, giving one of his long speeches, wrapping up with "anyways…" That show = so good.

    "Irregardless" – that blatant misuse of a non-word is always cringe-worthy.

  • Kithica says:

    I worked for an international touring company that had employees from 22 countries. English was the common language, but it was more common to some than others. The funniest thing was that the native Englih-speakers started picking up the constructions of those who were translating into English from their native tongue. I have been known to be a grammar Nazi myself, and I found myself saying things like "this one not, and this one also not". I just got such a kick out of it, and using it created a sense of belonging, even though I knew it was wrong.

    That said, at a later job when my boss (a native English speaker, although you couldn't tell from his writing) used to write "all of THE sudden" instead of "all of A sudden" it made me want to stab him with a fork. And from the internet I gather that's not even a terribly odd construction. Just got up my nose something fierce.

    Also, in response to the "he was sat" comment – I am Canadian, but lived in London, England for several years in the mid-00s. That construction was so common in everyday speech that I picked it up myself, and still catch myself using it in causal situations.

  • lemonf says:

    To me, "he was sat" instead of "he was sitting," (I'm in Alabama, that may matter) feels like "he was sat" implies that he sat himself there almost like someone else would have set an inanimate object there and now he is just passively not not-sitting there. Did that make any sense at all? Like, "he was sat at the foot of the bed, waiting for his turn in the shower" sorta implies that he's not even conscious of his decision to sit in that particular spot, it's just the place where he sat down and now it's the place he hasn't bothered to get up from. I'm not sure if the usage you're seeing jives with that, but that's how I feel like I would use it if I have used it, or how I would hear it if someone said it to me. *shrug*

  • Isabelle says:

    Oh, would that ever bug me!

    I just recently changed jobs, and part of the joy is no longer having to listen to my asswagon of a boss say "utilize" instead of use, or my most reviled "myself," as in "If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask Assistant AssWagon or myself." It makes me crazed. We are an educational organization! We are supposed to be teaching others to write and speak correctly, and then there goes this twat waffle.
    I want to yell, "NO one can talk to yourself! I can talk to myself, she can talk to herself, we can all talk to ourselves, but none of us can talk to yourself and I hate you, you pompous dicknut!"

    And now I need to be sat on a bed somewhere. Preferably with a glass of something strong.

  • Jacq says:

    I love the melodramatic tongue-in-cheek nature of this letter; all the "am I irresponsible to let this continue"! We all find bad grammar irritating, but this particular affectation seems like small potatoes when compared to the shocking errors I have read nearly every day of my written life – usually written by intelligent adults. And I agree with those who said that overpoliteness beats underpoliteness, every day of the week.

  • Cora says:

    @Chrissi and Jen.S.10: I know, right?? And what the hell IS "fawn", anyway? Is it dark reddish brown, or light brown, or what? Does it include the white spots?

    Here's a question: does a website already exist somewhere where we readers giggle over quirky author stuff like this? Examples would include P.D. James' "fawn" as well as Tolkein's overuse of "peril" (I swear, every ten goddamn pages of The Return of the Kingsomeone is "in peril") and Alan Furst's comma splices? It seems like one should. Hmmmmm.

  • Jacq says:

    If we're talking about bad performances by successful authors, I can offer this hilarious sentence from the most recent Jilly Cooper novel:

    "Sheep-coloured hillsides were covered in sheep".

  • Mary says:

    Can confirm that "I was sat" and "I was stood"are standard in England (I'm from the Midlands/North) – to the extent that I speak fairly middle-class, standard English and I didn't realise the construction was non-standard until a couple of years ago when my Irish girlfriend used it on Facebook and enter of her friends teased her about going native.

  • Yogurt Baron says:

    Don't think I've ever commented on a Vine before, but this is like looking in an internet mirror: I worked for a big-shot doctor some years ago who said "may you please" *constantly*.

    "Hi, Doctor."
    "May you please hi, Yogurt Baron."

    I exaggerate, but just barely. And, yes, it was irritating in a very specific and visceral way that most grammatical bungles don't tend to be, for me. But I agree with others who've posted: most of that unique irritation comes from a)., the pomposity implicit in the overcorrection, and b)., the sense that they're overcorrecting because they think it's fancy. I never wanted to tell him, "Hey, that's a weird expression, and I think it's ungrammatical." I often wanted to tell him, "You're a DOCTOR! You think you're better than me?! You can't even grammar right! Well, 'may you please' shut up!"

    So I agree with other posters that:
    1. You're likely motivated, to some degree, consciously or not, by irritation with their wealth and privilege.
    2. Absolutely nothing good can come of correcting your boss in this context. As Sarah said, if you're proofing something where they've written that, consider correcting it. But conversations that boil down to, "I just want to let you know that you're not better than me," with the people who sign our paycheques, rarely end well.

  • phineyj says:

    @Mary, "I was sat" isn't standard usage in London & the south east.

    I found this very clear explanation on the BBC site (it also explains what the different bits of grammar are called, @HollyH)

    Hurray for pedantry! Now I can astound the English department at school.

    Now, if only I knew what a gerund is. Can anyone explain? Like @HollyH, I know from lots of reading and writing what the correct usage is but I don't know the grammar terms either.

  • Heh. My toddler says: "May can I please…" which we think is cute but drives some family members completely batty. All the advice I've read says that modelling correct sentence construction is much (MUCH) more effective than criticism.

    So that would be my advice to the LW. Not that I would present myself as a poster child for correct grammar, but our child DID eventually learn the difference between "me" and "you".

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