Tuesday, December 23, 2014

#358 / The Grammar Girl

The Grammar Girl gives online tips to help interested persons improve their writing. Supposedly, these are quick and "dirty" tips, but I found nothing at all salacious in my quick review of The Grammar Girl website.

The real name of the person responsible for The Grammar Girl's advice is Mignon Fogarty. Click this link to find out what the column says about "Can" versus "May." 

The basic rule, as I hope we all know, is that "can" is about "ability," and "may" is about "permission." I, personally, don't really agree with The Grammar Girl's statement that "nowadays, the rules aren't so cut and dried." 

I prefer what The Grammar Girl identified as the "once upon a time" proper usage: 

Once upon a time in the land of strict grammar rules, “can” denoted physical or mental ability and “may” denoted permission or authorization. It wasn't OK to use “can” if you were talking about permission. You could hear citizens of this land saying, “May I accompany you to the ball, Miss Fuzzywink?” and “Why of course you may, my dear.” This young lady, perhaps, would ask her suitor about his dancing ability: “Can you do the cha-cha?” and he would answer that he did have the ability: “Why of course I can, Miss Fuzzywink.”

Well, that is still the right way to do things, grammar-wise; at least, that is my contention!

But let's think about another aspect of the Can/May choice. Young people, not yet fully briefed on correct grammar, often use the word "can" when they are really asking for "permission." This sets up the  typical "Mother May I?" situation. The child says "can," not "may," and the mother, sensitive to correct grammatical usage, will use this question as a teaching moment: 

BILLY: "Mother, can I eat all the Halloween candy?"
MOTHER: "Well, you could, but if you did, you'd get sick, so you may not."
The mother then elaborates on the ability/permission distinction, ignoring the advice of The Grammar Girl that says that the can/may distinction doesn't really matter anymore.

What I want to point out is how this distinction properly orients us to the fact of human freedom. We "can" do lots of things that we should not do. That's because human laws, regulations, and rules are "prescriptive" not "descriptive." They don't tell us what is inevitable, or necessary, as the laws of the physical or natural world do, because in the human world, where human freedom exists, there is no strict "necessity." 

We "can" do almost anything (within our "human world'). If we "may not" do some things that we actually "could" or "can" do, it's because we create the rules we have determined should be followed, to achieve the best result.

We "can," in other words, do lots of things that we are better off not doing. Our rules, telling us what we "may" do, and what we "may not" do, are intended to give us proper guidance. We need to give ourselves this kind of guidance, in a world in which we "can" or "could" do lots of things that would have bad effects. 

BILLY: "Mother, can I fire off this nuclear missile?"
MOTHER: "You can, Billy, but you may not!" 

Mothers who don't make this distinction clear to their children aren't doing their job!

As you can tell from my comments here, MY mother did do her job. 

I know the difference between ability and permission. And it's an important difference, too, not to be glossed over by a quick and dirty dismissal by The Grammar Girl.

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