Tuesday, May 12, 2009

'can I get' redux

This is for an MA student at our university. Here's her plea:
For my dissertation, I'm looking at the recent increase of young Brits using 'can I get' for requests, rather than 'can I have..', which old-school speakers like me use. I'm assuming that the 'can I get..' form is American, but I'm not sure if Americans see the two forms as having any difference in meaning. To me, and older British speakers, 'can I get a glass of water?' means 'do you mind if I help myself to...' if I'm in someone's house. It therefore seems odd to use it in a cafe or a pub, unless you plan to go behind the counter and help yourself.

A quick look at an American corpus seems to suggest that American usage of 'can I have...' is used more for questioning if you are allowed something. Is this really the case? I'd be really interested to hear what Americans with an interest in linguistics have to say!

Thanks very much.

So, please help her by discussing in the comments. Here's my posting on 'Can I get a latte grande?' from some time ago.

68 comments:

dayna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dayna said...

'can I get a glass of water?' means 'do you mind if I help myself to...' if I'm in someone's house. It therefore seems odd to use it in a cafe or a pub, unless you plan to go behind the counter and help yourself.

I'm an American female in my 30s and your explanation of the have/get difference mimics my own.

Pixie said...

American, 32 I was taught to always use may I have... instead of can I have... -- as 'can' implies an ability, and 'may' is an actual request.
When asking someone 'can I have...' -- perhaps they answer, "Well, I don't know? Can you?" It's informal and annoying to me to hear this usage of 'can I have..." You are asking permission, not requesting.
As far as being in someone's home, I use 'May I help myself to...' -- I reserve can/could for actions.

Moe: said...

To expand a bit further, the way I was taught to use get\have would also apply to whether or not I was using can\may.

I (American) tend to use "can I get" when ordering from a restaurant, store, etc. as an expectedness that I am indeed allowed to have said item.

When in someone's house I would say "may I have" as a way to be polite and let the other party know that it is up to them whether or not they will "allow" me to have said item.

In both instances I would assume that the person I was talking to would get me the item, rather than me get it myself, unless the person specifically said, "help yourself".

Gordon P. Hemsley said...

I wonder how influential the 1998 song "Can I Get A..." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Can_I_Get_A...) is in this phenomenon? I know when I saw the "can I get a" quote, the song was first thing I thought of.

I can't really say what my own usage is, though....

Joe said...

Gordon, "can I get" is much older than 1998. For example, there's a Marvin Gaye song from 1963 called "Can I Get a Witness".

Isabelle said...

I don't like the phrase "can I get" at all when requesting, because I think it's a bit informal or rude. I prefer to say "I'd like . . ." Maybe that's my French "Je voudrais" coming out. The worst still is what I hear often, which is "Lemme have . . ." I just don't like it.

amodeus said...

I am an American (26), and I don't ever use "Can I get..." in this context. I don't even order something with "Can I have...", but say, "I would like...". I hope that helps.

lynneguist said...

Can I just interject to say:

(a) people are very bad judges of what they themselves say, so that kind of report won't be very useful to the student. (Or, at least, she'd be ill-advised to take your word for it!)

(b) I think her greater concern is what you feel these things mean, rather than whether you say them.

(c) Please don't forget that we can't tell if you're American or British unless you say so!

Anonymous said...

I am an American in my early 30s. "Can I get" sounds extremely informal to me, and I can't imagine using it in most restaurants. "Could I get", however, sounds fine to my ears.
I agree with your assessment of "could I have", though. I wouldn't use it unless I had some uncertainty about whether the item was available.

Emmet said...

Discounting the difference in register between the two usages (sthg that has been noted by previous commenters), I (American, late 20s, male) don't perceive a difference in MEANING between the two.

For the meaning "is it possible for me to physically take hold of x," i would say "can I [just] take X?" Eg, "can I get a Big Mac" vs "Can I take a few sweet-and-sour sauce packets with me"

mollymooly said...

Irish. "can/could I get/have ..." all sound fine to me; the 'do you mind if I help myself to...' interpretation would never have crossed my mind.

I never use "may" for permission, and I don't think the MA student cares about that issue. As to politeness, I'm sure I've said "I'll have ..." when I'm in a restaurant and not the first in the group to order. Brisk is not rude.

Wingnut said...

American: I think there is a difference between being in someone's home and being at Starbucks. Personally, if someone was in my home and said, "Can I get a glass of water?" I would nod toward the cupboard and say, "Of course," assuming that they would get it themselves. "Can I have a glass of water?" could go either way--it would depend on other variables: how familiar the person was with the space, who was closer, etc.--open to interpretation.

However, in a restaurant ordering situation, "Can I get" and "can I have" are completely interchangeable. Maybe because (as someone else said), there is clearly no way you are getting it yourself.

I can't really give a good idea of the pervasiveness where I live, although I wouldn't be surprised at all if it varied by region.

kiwianna said...

As an american in her 30s, I don't see a difference in meaning between can I get and can I have.

As the previous comments here reflect, americans tend to get hung up on "can I ..." vs "may I ..." with little attention paid to the verb that follows.

The one exception is the phrase "can I get you ... [while I'm up]?" - which is an explict offer to go and retrieve an item (e.g water, ketchup or napkins) for your dining companions. The respondents could use any of the forms mentioned thus far in their reply.

robert61 said...

In my middle-class 60s/70s childhood in the US, I learned that "Can I get..." as a request for something is a vulgarism and "May I have..." the preferred form. Leaving aside the can/may issue, "have" still seems more right. However, "Can I get..." feels quite natural in an informal setting, and even though it grates on me a little, I know I say it.

I have lived in Sweden for the past 20 years, so my take is an ossified remnant of the 80s.

Rick S said...

American, 55, from the Northeast (youth) and Mid-Atlantic regions (adulthood). My impressions:

"May" is more formal, "can" more familiar. Other than that, whether the request is to have something given to you or for permission to help yourself depends on the social context more than the words.

In general, "may/can I have/get" means the same thing, but there are a few exceptions:

1. "May I get" is formal, but requests permission to help oneself in spite of formal conventions of hospitality. In very formal settings, it risks being rudely presumptuous, but in less formal ones it can be a token of humility or considerateness for a preoccupied host.

2. "Can I get" means "can you get me" in a restaurant, shop, etc., where the customer doesn't have access to the item. It may also express uncertainty about the availability of the item.

3. "Can I get" is sometimes used in a humorous, mildly chiding way to point out a friend's failure of hospitality (as in "Hey, can I get a beer, or what?"). It might be a shortening of something like "What do I have to do to get an X around here?"

"Have" leans a little toward being given something, while "get" leans toward helping yourself. Still, either can go either way. "Can I get (be given) your phone number?" vs. "May I have (help myself to) this apple?".

Doug Sundseth said...

AmE Western US: I have "can I get" implying expectation and "can I have" as expressing slightly more uncertainty about permission or availability (at least in some cases). The difference is pretty minor and not always observed, though; I wouldn't be surprised by either "Can I have a Big Mac Meal" or "Can I get a Big Mac Meal".

Upon reflection, I might be more likely to use "Can I get ..." when I have more things to order (unreliable intuition only); I have no idea why that would be.

Anonymous said...

AmE Upper Midwest, female, late 20s- like others I'm sure I use the two more or less interchangeably. In my mind there is no difference in meaning, except perhaps as a guest- get might be used more frequently to ask permission to help myself to something. But in a restaurant etc. neither would stick out to me as unusual.

Elizabeth said...

American mid 20s:
I think "Can I have?" has a little more flavor of uncertainty than "Can I get?", but they're pretty nearly interchangeable. I think I'd be more inclined to say "Can I have?" when requesting something in someone's house or if it's some kind of big favor (you know "Can I have the last cookie?"). "Can I get?" doesn't work for me there. But in an ordering food situation they're perfectly interchangeable to me.

Solo said...

I'm English, so probably not terribly helpful, but a fellow student mentioned this to me a couple of years ago and I started paying attention to what I myself say.

At the time I immediately insisted I'd never use such a coarse Americanism, but since then I've noticed I use it a lot especially, like Doug, when I'm going to make a complicated order.

It seems like the term has gained false press as an American import, seeing as we seem to do it more than you. It's almost always young women who use it in BrE from what I can tell, so I assumed it was actually a hedging device as 'Can I have' (as opposed to 'May I have') seems more forceful to me. When I say 'Can I get' it feels more hesitant.

Beyond that, I agree with Rick and Wingnut- in public it's a request to be served and in someone's house it's asking permission to serve yourself.

Anonymous said...

English, late 40s: I agree with other comments about the difference between a domestic and public setting. If ordering food from a list in a pub, I think "have" is more likely than "get" but the difference is probably marginal, particularly among younger people.

Personally, I would say "could I have/get.." rather than "can I have/get...", but that may be similar to the previous comment about Je voudrais...

Cameron said...

I think (ScE) I am much more likely to use "I would like" or "could I have" than any of the other variations in a public setting, in private i would most likely be something more informal and light like "is it okay if I grab/pinch..." I think it's really a personal thing and I don't really see much significant difference in meaning, except that "can I get" feels a bit more grasping to me, a bit less polite. But none of the variations would really throw me at all, I think.

Shannon said...

American, 31, and midwestern, which although a bit late, I suspect might have some bearing.

I have same reaction as a few others that it depends if I am in a public place or a private home. Can I have/Can I get are basically the same to me in a restaurant-type situation.

In a house, I think "Can I get x" sounds really presumptuous, like I've been waiting for them to serve me, whereas "Can I have x" is much less so. "Can I get myself x" or "Do you mind if I get myself x" seems like a much likelier (and not rude) possibility.

Doches said...

American, 23, from Texas (but living in Scotland) -- I use the two interchangeably.

Kelv said...

Welshman, late 30s. If a friend asked me "Can I get...", my reaction would be either, "It's okay, I'll get it for you", or just as likely, "Sure"... while staying firmly seated on the settee!

Picky said...

British, 60s, and I agree with Shannon - can I get, even in a house, sounds presumptuous, unless, perhaps, in the house of a family member. Otherwise, polite would be "Would you mind if I got".

In cafe/pub my understanding is a range from the politest "might I have" through "could I have" to "may I have" to "can I have" to "I'll have the ... please" at the least polite. "Can I get" does not seem possible to me.

Anonymous said...

Scottish, 42, living in Wales for 13 years, spent 8 years in England, married to an Englishwoman. "Can I get" is something I definitely would associate with American influence on UK English, particularly in the context of fast food outlets ("restaurants") and Starbucks-type coffee shops. I have heard a few people (with English or Welsh or Scottish accents) use it in those contexts in the UK. Pretty much all of those people were under about 25. Strangely, this use of "can I get" grated much more on me than the "skinny venti mocha" or whatever mangled coffee-shop phrase followed it!

I'm pretty sure I have never heard "can I get" from anyone over 30 in the UK (I assume the original enquirer is less interested in the usage in domestic settings where the speaker genuinely does mean 'can I get myself a...' and in the may/can distinction).

I'd always assumed it had filtered through from the 'cool' world of American TV and culture in the same way that supermarkets now have aisles of "canned" tomatoes, shopping centres are "malls" and school pupils are "students". (Our local bus company has recently repainted its school buses a garish yellow...)

These changes in UK English are particularly noticeable in public signage in Wales, which is almost always bilingual and where the Welsh version often reflects the older, more traditional phrasing - e.g. "canned fish" = "pysgod tun" (tinned fish), "fitting rooms" = "ystafelloedd newid" (changing rooms), "students (pre-university)" = "disgyblion" (pupils). If you speak (or at least read) Welsh, this often brings the American-influenced English version into sharp highlight.

Of course, there is the problem that it's easy to assume any neologism or change in phrasing in English is a result of American influence, when the cause may simply be amelioration, the older term sounding 'dull' or 'fuddy-duddy' or 'uncool'.

Neij.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

English, mid-50s. I was in a restaurant with my daughter (English/Irish, late 20s) and I noticed that she said, "Can I get the...." and I said, "I'll have the...."

For me, the oddity wasn't the turn of phrase she used, but the fact that she phrased it as a question at all. I would expect to tell the waiter my choice, not ask if I could have it!

I wouldn't expect to hear "Can I get..." at home, unless it was in the context of "Can (or "May") I get myself some water?"

John Cowan said...

American, NYC (though not native), 50.

On the reception side, I don't feel much difference between "Can I get?" and "Can I have?"

On the production side, I wouldn't use either unless I needed emphasis. If my water glass is empty, I'd ask "Would you get me some water, please?" On the second try, I'd escalate to "Can I get some water, please?" On the third try, I'd leave off the "please", and maybe the tip, too.

I'd never use this phrase when ordering, though; that would be "I'll take the ..." I would say "Can I get?" only for a genuine question, like "Can I get that without the mustard sauce, or is it already mixed in?"

FWIW, I eat in restaurants about once a week, and get food delivered (either prepared or not) several times a week, so I'm quite conscious of what I say.

dunce said...

I am American (Indiana), have lived in the UK for the past 10 years (and heard a lot of griping from older Brits about the adoption of "can I get..." by the younger generation).

I also use "Can I get..." (and "Could I get...") often enough it's been mentioned by others. for example a London barman who replied something like "No, I'm afraid you can't; you can't come behind the bar."

Since I first noticed this I've paid a lot of attention to these expressions by myself and others.
I would agree that the american usage of "Can I have..." does have a tendency to be more about asking permission than "Can I get...". It's somewhat complicated by the fact that many of the Americans in my family and social circle see "can I get..." as unacceptably informal (many preferring "May I have..." as a previous commenter already mentioned), and in many cases they seem to be used interchangeably.

One occasion that I have noticed "Can I have..." is in a restaurant or other service environment when a person is ordering something that doesn't appear on the menu, or some kind of alteration of the listed item, e.g. "Can I get the salmon, but can I have it with the sauce on the side?". This is not quite asking permission, but at least it expresses some degree of uncertainty compared to "get".

It also seems to me that this particular sense of "get" is restricted to service environments, although my introspection might fail me here.

dunce said...

oops - in the above comment, I should have noted that the examples i give are from US speakers.

James D said...

Welsh, 25.

@ Neij: Welsh isn't like conservative English on this one. It's perfectly normal to order food or drink in Welsh "Ga' i ... ?" (more formally written "A gaf i ... ?). "Caf" is the first person singular of the future/present tense of "cael", which is much closer in meaning to the English "to get" than the English "to have" -- for instance, you would absolutely not use "cael" to say "I have a dog" unless you meant that you had just come into its ownership.

So, as you can imagine, I'm with mollymooly on this one -- neither sounds wrong (in fact, I hadn't thought of one or the other as American). Perhaps the student could find some way of blaming Celtic immigrants to the Americas for this wonderful Americanism!

ryan-family said...

AmE (Virginia, California, Washington), now living in England, aged 38 years.

This thread is fascinating! (Or I'm easily amused. Perhaps both.)

I had never noticed a person request an item using the phrase, "Can I get," until moving to England, and so I thought it was an "Englishism."

What do I think the phrase, "Can I get," means? Well, before moving to England, upon hearing the phrase I would have thought the "requestor" wished to help him/herself to something. Now? I take it in context.

I, like many others who've commented, prefer to use the phrase, "May I have..." when requesting any item, be it food, a glass of water, an opinion.

To my ears, using the phrase, "Can I get," as a request to be given/served an item is both overly-familiar and incorrect.

James said...

American, 37, living in Australia. I've noticed "Can I get" in the contexts others have -- uni students ordering in cafes etc. Before this post, my feeling had been that it's more common in Australia than in the US, but I haven't paid close enough attention to be confident in that.

To me, the meaning is completely clear in all contexts. I would never think someone is actually asking to go behind the counter and get something themselves.

Nick said...

I think the correct British usage is 'may I have a....?', though 'can I have' is alright.

'Can I get a....?' sounds like a North American usage to me.

Anonymous said...

American (Midwest but with substantial East Coast experience--this is beginning to sound like a personals ad), late 50s. I agree with John Cowan and dunce--I eat lunch about once a week with colleagues, and the standard request is "I'd like [the]" or "I'll have [the]," except for one person who frequently makes exchanges and says, for example, "I'd like a Caesar salad, but can I get vinegar and oil dressing instead of Caesar?" (She likes romaine lettuce, and finds that an easier way than asking for a house salad with romaine.)

For comparison's sake, the standard request in German would be "Ich möchte" or "Ich hätt[e] gern." But I've often heard people--especially in shops, not restaurants--use "Ich bekomme" or "Ich kriege" or "I kriag'" (the last in the South). It's always struck me as slightly more imperious than the subjunctives (though not impolite), but perhaps a native speaker has a different sense.

Zhoen said...

"Can I have the chicken with salad. And can I get that without onions?" (In restaurant)

"Can I get you a beer?" (At home)

"Can I have another slice of cake?" (Someone else's home)

I was taught to use May I, but since I don't play "Mother May I?" anymore, I don't use it unless I'm being stiffly polite.

AM/E, Canadian family, Detroit, and various points west.

Frugal Dougal said...

I'm with Pixie, in that as far as I'm aware, "may I have" is the correct British usage as well. If I said to somebody "can I get a glass of water", that would suggest not "may I have...", but "may I go into your kitchen and help myself to...".

simonduke said...

if i am ordering something i just say, "i'll have..."

Vic said...

Thanks for all your comments. Your feedback is really interesting, and has brought up lots more issues for me to research. I will be sure to credit you with any of ideas and judgements which I use!
Thanks again for your help; only 20,000 words to go...
Vic

Anonymous said...

American, New York, 44 -
"Can I get" sounds correct in two situations - asking for permission when in an informal setting (can I get a beer = may I help myself to a beer) or when asking for access to something you feel you already own somehow (can I get some love, here? Can I get gravy with the chicken?).

"May I have?" seems to me to be far too formal, as if the speaker was trying too hard to pass.

Laura said...

23, American, Colorado
I've thought about this before and made an effort to observe what I say and what people around me say. If I am ordering in a public place, saying "Can I get..." sounds normal to me. In fact, I would go so far as to say "Can I have..." sounds almost strange in that setting, perhaps too formal. I can't think of what I say in a private setting, like someone's home. In that setting, most often someone asks what I'd like from a list of things and I would answer with something like "just water" and not counter their question with "Can I get/have..." Having said that, when I imagine saying "Can I get..." in a person's home, it does sound as if I am ordering it.

In a more formal setting, I would likely say "May I have...?" Also, I've noticed where I live is more relaxed in our ways, so it could be different in, say, the eastern part of the U.S.

ros said...

I'm British and 35 and I agree with her thesis about the difference in meaning. If I 'get' something, that implies an action on my part, whereas to 'have' something implies that someone is going to give it to me.

Anecdotally, I'd also agree that I heard the 'Can I get' formulation much more frequently in the US.

Anonymous said...

"Can I get" strikes this American female over 50 as informal, if not sloppy, language. It also has overtones of euphemism, as though the speaker were embarrassed to say "Can I have," which perhaps sounds too demanding. Another thought that occurs with "get" vs. "have" is that get is associated with the act of paying: I get coffee for $2.50. Nobody gives us coffee in a restaurant, they expect us to pay for it, so "May I have..." may sound to some speakers like a request for something given, not paid for.

Andrew said...

I think the immediately preceding post from an anonymous American contributor has it right - "Can I get" is a weak attempt at a euphemism.

I'm Australian. "Can I get" is spreading like Paterson's Curse (look it up!). Seems to be an under-30 thing. I find it (imagine crusty old voice here) very annoying.

Georgia said...

(sorry if this repeats something already said; I'm too tired to read all the comments). I've been speaking American English for oh, 63 years, and "Can I get a X?" seems also interpretable as a reasonably polite way of asking, at a shop, "Do you have X?" FWIW, I would never ask (beg?), "Can I have a X"--I gave that up years ago in favor of "I'd like a X" if it's something on the menu.

Mimi said...

Can I get a word in here?
No?
Well, may I comment?
Thank you.
'Nuff said.

James said...

Weighing in again...

I've watched myself since this came up, and to my surprise, I say "Can I get" a *lot* when ordering in cafes at the counter.

I'm pretty convinced that it's all about context. I don't think I would use it when ordering at the table. It also might depend on whether the person taking the order is older, the same age, or younger. Perhaps "I'll have" has a air of entitlement, and so is OK at the table but a bit presumptuous at other times, whereas "can I get" is more familiar and egalitarian. This would at least explain why "can I get" is more common among the young and why it seems fake to the old.

(American, 37, living in Australia)

Jim said...

American, 54, living in the US South. My impression is that the two phrases ARE USED interchangeably. The subtle differences in meaning seem to vary by user, but the person hearing the comment would understand, usually based on context.

It grates me more that the word "can" is in either phrase. I think this goes back to elementary school where one particularly tough teacher would always reply ... "I don't know if you can, but you may ...". She noted that "can" refers to ability while "may" refers to permission.

From the grammatical side I would say that "have" is passive while "get" is active, but, again, the meaning is contextual and we all know the same thing, that someone wants something.

John Cowan said...

Just to put a bullet through the head of the ability/permission thing: in a restaurant, it's ability that's at issue. You have blanket permission to order anything the restaurant is able to serve you (provided you can pay, etc.)

It is, therefore, prescriptively appropriate to use can in such requests rather than may, which does fit the classroom situation where permission is needed.

Of course, this has nothing to do with which forms are actually used when; it's just a way of confounding prescriptivists.

Solo said...

Aah yes, Anonymous and Andrew, I think that's what I was trying to say- it's a politeness euphemism. I don't like to sound imperious when I'm standing up and ordering something over a counter so I want to hedge my request a little. In a restaurant or in the house of someone I don't know that well, it's a more formal situation. (Plus in a restaurant I'm going to leave a tip, certainly a much bigger one than I'd leave in a coffee shop etc, so they're being renumerated for complying with my outrageous demands for clean cutlery and glasses of water.)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm 24 from New York and I've thought about this usage before:

I use "can I get" in Starbucks or when ordering something at a counter. It works anywhere that I'm paying for something but I can be informal. At a fancy restaurant, I would say "I'll have" or something even more polite (may I please have)

I use "Can I have" more when the other person will have to give that thing up. For example, if my friend is eating a bag of candies I will ask "can I have one?" However, for a good friend who has plenty of candies to spare, I might say something as insistent and informal as "lemme get one."

terrycollmann said...

56-year-old Londoner/Englishman - "can I get" sounds utterly alien to me if ordering anything in a restaurant or asking for something in someone's home. I'd only say: "Can I get YOU a ...(whatever)" to someone else. "Could I have ..." is what I'd say if odering something, or "I'll have (the lasagne/a pint, whatever)"

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I heard myself today saying to a workman who was waiting on someone else, "Can I get you a coffee?" and thinking, at the time, that this was probably the only way I'd use that expression in that context.

If I were in a restaurant and wanted to adjust the order slightly, I'd probably say, "I'll have the [whatever] and may I have it without prawns, please?", or even "But without the prawns, please."

Andy JS said...

This is an interesting discussion. I think "can I get" when used in a restaurant or cafe still sounds odd to most British people of all ages. Some young British people use it in an attempt to sound fashionably American. "Can I have" is the most normal sounding way of saying it, followed by "May I have" but that sounds a bit old-fashioned in my opinion. I'm interested that many Americans find "Can I have" an odd way of saying it, as if to say "is it possible", but the strange thing is that "is it possible to have a glass of water" is actually used by some British people to order a glass of water, so maybe that explains why "can I have" is used.

In a strange way "can I get" sounds a bit dishonest to me as a British person, in the sense that it sounds as if one is trying to imply that it is "I" who will be getting the drink, not the waiter or waitress. If "get" is going to be used, it should be "can you get" but that obviously sounds a bit rude. Therefore using "can I get" is an attempt to say "can you get" without being rude, but it does sound a bit dishonest from a British perspective.

Strawberryyog said...

I'm 52 and English and this usage drives me nuts, or at least it did two years ago when I wrote this: http://strawberryyog.blogspot.com/2007/06/can-i-get.html - I'm trying to be more tolerant now but I still find it grates, painfully, when used by English people.

Christian said...

German, lived in Vancouver, now in London, I stumbled upon this small difference as well i.e. when ordering food. Thanks for clarifying that there actually is a difference and English always has a nice surprise waiting. :-)

Chris Ward said...

What a great discussion. I'm British (English), 37 years old and male. I work in a city and often hear people younger than me in sandwich shops ask "can I get..." a variety of items which sounds odd to me in the same way as stated above. I use "I'll have..." if I can see the item I want or I am certain that it is available and out of sight. I use "can I have...?" if I am unsure of an unseen item's availability. I was teaching english in South India earlier this year and a lot of younger people there use the phrase "I didn't get you" if they didn't understand something that you said to them during a conversational exchange. I tried to discuss this a couple of times with my fellow conversators but it went nowhere...

Grumps said...

Hi I'm a Londoner and notice that no one seems to say can I have any more.
It might be me being paranoid but I seem to trace the rise in the phrase back to the tv show Friends. Late 90's and since then it has taken over.

johnnie said...

Whether it is "can I have" or "may I have" is dependent on the customs of the restaurant. However, in a house (or if in doubt) it is always "may I have" because in a house the primary concern is may one have the freedom to either request or move about the house to help oneself to what one wants.

In a restaurant where menus are readily available and customarily used it is appropriate to say "may I have" assuming one is ordering from the menu and therefore the selection is available and thus one "can (is able [to])... have" it. In this case one is merely making a courteous request to the server, waiter, or host to bring said selection to him/her.

If in a restaurant where menus are not readily available and are not customarily used, it is acceptable to say “can I have…” since there may be no way of knowing if the item desired is available. In such a case the question truly is “am I able to have…”.

azzieb said...

I'm female, British, late 30s. In 1994 I had an American boyfriend and spent a few weeks visiting him in California, where everyone said 'can I get...?', all the time. After that visit I noticed it creeping into my vocabulary (naively, I was quite wowed by the West Coast lifestyle and its associated habits, which probably had something to do with it). Being also a bit of a language geek, I was very attuned to it, and listened out for it when back in the UK. For quite a while, the only people I heard using it here were Americans. It wasn't until the late 90s that I noticed it becoming common usage among Brits. Perhaps there's something in the notion of a Friends influence as mentioned in a previous comment.

slatsmeister said...

I'm a British male in my early 40s, I really hate the expression "Can I get a....", I hear it all the time nowadays, in shops, cafes etc. Only the other day I was in a sandwich shop and a young guy said to the shopkeeper "Erm, ya, erm, hi, can I get a ham and cheese bun" Arrrrrggghhhh! I wanted to throttle him and say "No! YOU CAN'T! You can ask for a ham and cheese bun, and the shop keeper will get it for you!"

Anonymous said...

I'm a british male (33) and I have to agree with you on this one. I work in a bar which serves food and today a lady of about the same age approached me and asked if she could "get" some butter [for her bread], to which I replied "yeah sure, do you know where it is?". Needless to say she looked completely godsmacked but she didn't think about what she'd said, she waited until I told her i'd get it for her. It's a silly expression and needs to stop!

Mindy said...

In my house growing up (in the 80's and 90's) if I asked "Can I Have a soda?" my mom would say yes. But she would not "get it for me" She would "get if for me" if I asked her "Can I get a soda?"

Anonymous said...

My goodness, this is AMAZING!

I am writing this having found your article whilst searching on google for "can I get - Americanism" whilst travelling on a train in Yorkshire. What has prompted me is that of the 25 or so people on my carriage (or car for those of you in other parts of the world), when asked by the lady with the trolley what they would like, the VAST MAJORITY started their reply with "Can I get"....a coffee, a tea etc. I am noticing it more and more here, and with older people too as they hear it said more and more when ordering in our god-forsaken proliferation of extortionate flavoured-hot-water providing emporia.

Look, two points:

Firstly, "can" is from the verb which means to be (physically) able to. Can pigs fly? Answer - no. Can humans speak? Answer - yes, unless they are unfortunately mute or have some other disability. So when you request "Can I have" something, in British English, you are technically asking someone their opinion as to whether you it is physically possible to do / obtain something. So if it's "can I have a coffee?" And you're in a place where you could purchase one, the answer would technically be yes but with no action from the respondent. If you use MAY when requesting, the respondent knows you are asking them to consider obtaining / providing something for you.

Secondly, "get" as used in "can (or indeed "may") I get " implies that the person saying it will obtain it themselves, which is clearly NOT what the person means when ordering at Starbucks counter. So, if you stand there and say "Can I get a Latte?" In British English the respondent should correctly consider whether you can (are you physically capable of doing / getting (for yourself)) a drink of latte and reply with a simple yes or no based on that assessment, and take no action. If you said "May I get a Latte?" this would correctly be taken by the respondent to mean you we're asking permission to come behind the counter and "get" (for yourself) a Latte. The respondent would respond on that basis (with likely a "no" in a Starbucks, and if I was serving you, I'd say "no, but I'm happy to make you one".

"Can I get" is wrong on all levels, and grossly impolite / dismissive too. I found some of the points above very revealing...people would use "May I have" in someone's house but "can I get" to a waiter because they "expect" on demand "because we're paying". What about a bit of common courtesy to the waitress too? Why treat them like second class citizens? This is actually true Americanism.....money being king of everything.

British, 40s, about to be criticised for views above, but actually spot on with technical explanations of these words.

lynneguist said...

You're welcome to your own tastes about words, but not to your own facts--at least not if you're trying to explain English as it's spoken by anyone but you.

The modal verb 'can' is the most multi-meaninged of the modal verbs. Whole PhD theses/dissertations have been written about it (I supervised one of them!). Similarly, 'get' has many meanings--the Collins English Dictionary entry has 27. If we want to get 'technical' about language, there is no single way of interpreting anything with these words in them.

Anthony Cook said...

As a Barman for 12 years in the north east of England I've noticed a dramatic increase in customers requesting with "can I get a...". It's used to be just the younger people of about 20ish but now it's spread up to 50 year olds. I can still rely on the pensioners though as they generally say "may I have a..." which is nice. "Can I get a..." is something that grates on my nervous but I'm slowly accepting it as the norm. I would prefer it if people said "can you get me a..." it makes more sense. I would like to say, if you can't beat them join them but on this particular anomaly I'm quite happy being ignorant.

Anonymous said...

I don't like "Can I get...? - it just doesn't sound right to my (Welsh) ears. Much like the nonsense now involved in buying a very mediocre cup of coffee in any of the chains, or describing a minced meat pattie in a bun as a "sandwich".