can I get a latte grande?

Out for lunch Saturday with Better Half's Mum and her Better Half, when BHM'sBH declares "I hate it when English people take on American corporate jargon." I expected he was talking about thinking outside the box and investing in excellence. The latter is one of my pet peeves, as well as the current call-to-arms/pens by my university's management. ( I also hate that my university has a management team now instead of an administration.)

But no, BHM'sBH instead went on to talk about how he can tell who works for an American company when they open their mouths at Starbucks and say "Can I get a..." instead of "Can/May I have a...". If you ask to get a coffee, by his reasoning, you're asking to come (a)round to the other side of the counter and fix yourself a coffee. BH agrees with BHM'sBH that in the context of ordering a coffee can I get a means 'can I get myself a'.

Checking out can I get a on Google UK, some of the examples are:

can I get a qualification?
Can I get a regular health check at my GP surgery?
can i get a gmail invite?
Can I get a refund of unused portion of a season ticket...?
Can I get a refund on my parking permit?
Can I get a business grant to start up a new business in the Harrogate district?


Most of these are from FAQs, and are sincerely about ability ('Am I able to get a refund? How do I do it?'), rather than requests for things to be given. That's not surprising, as writing Can I get a decaf latte? on my website is unlikely to result in a hot beverage showing up beside me. (That's what yelling to BH in the kitchen was invented for.) The gmail invite example is the only one that stands out as a UK-located (but not necessarily UK) person requesting something using can i get a.

BrE speakers have no problem with saying I got a coffee on my way to work, meaning 'I took a coffee away from someplace where I ordered it'.

In can I get a, get is the converse of give:
Can I get a coffee (from you)? = Can you give me a coffee?

But it's not that the get/give opposition is American-only: on UK Google, one gets twice as many hits for get presents as for receive presents. Since one typically doesn't go and get one's presents from the giver ( one tends to passively receive them), it's clear here that British folk have the lexical/logical wherewithal to understand can I get a as a request.

I think is the real problem is that one learns early the 'polite' ways to ask for things, and this way is not in the British canon of polite requests. While get can mean a passive action of receiving, it also has other senses that are closer to take--which probably colo(u)rs people's perceptions of get's connotations. So, if you're brought up on saying can I have a, then can I get a might sound a little more greedy/impolite.

But why doesn't it sound less polite to American ears? (Especially if it's a relatively new locution there too?) Three possibilities, which don't rule one another out:

1 - Perhaps it does sound less polite to Americans too. To me can I get a sounds a little more brusque and self-cent(e)red than can I have a. (But maybe I've been influenced by my surroundings.)

2 - Perhaps it is slightly less polite in both dialects, but it's less important to sound "polite" in America. (The word polite is a bit loaded here. I'm using it to mean something like 'indirect/genteel'.) The US is known for its solidarity politeness system and for its individualistic culture. In a solidarity culture, one wants to act as if everyone's on the same social level. The UK is historically a deference culture, in which people's societal roles are more distinguished and great pains are taken not to inflict oneself on others unnecessarily. The UK has been shifting toward solidarity styles since at least the second world war, but is still not as far along that path as the US. The importation of (and unease with) can I get a may be a symptom of that shift.

3 - Or perhaps it's just that anything that sounds American grates on British ears and sounds less polite, just by association with Americans and stereotypes of Americans.

I think it's probably a combination of all of these.

22 comments

  1. That reminds me of how my mother used to react to the phrase "Can I...(insert phrase)" when asking for something. Her response was often, "I don't know, can you go to Susan's house?" implying that I may not be physically able to go. I would then have to respond, "May I go to Susan's house." Of course, now that I am a mother myself, I inflict that kind of thing on my son. But danged if he doesn't know the difference between "Can I" and "May I."

    I had not thought about "Can I get..." as being anything more (or less) than a request. However, it would probably be more appropriate to say "May I get," but that sounds very wrong. "May I have" sounds better. But to my American ears, it sounds like a question you would ask yourself, not others.

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  2. 'Indirect/gentile'? Does that mean that Jewish people are less inclined to circumlocution? Or should that be 'genteel'?

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  3. How embarrassing--and I know better!

    (Of course, I'm sneakily changing it now, but if I were really sneaky, I'd delete your comment and pretend it was always written correctly!)

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  4. Well, I was sneakily anonymous, so you would be justified in doing so - although it was because I didn't have a user name!
    It's only fair to identify myself now, to give people the chance the critcize me in return : )

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  5. If you ask to get a coffee, by his reasoning, you're asking to come (a)round to the other side of the counter and fix yourself a coffee.

    'Fixing' (yourself) a drink, or a meal, is an AmE way of 'making' it in BrE, isn't it? :)

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  6. Although I've lived in several states, I now live in Colorado, which (so I'm told) is somewhat notorious for having no accent and for having absolutely standard American English ways of saying things. I work in a coffee shop, so I get to hear all sorts of ways of ordering lattes. I usually ask "What can I get for you today?" (in which case, "Can I get..." is a perfectly reasonable way to begin a request) before the customer orders, but if I haven't asked yet, "can I get" can tend to sound a little too impatient. It really depends on how the speaker says it and whether the person looks like he/she should know better manners and/or grammar. However, "may I get" or "may I have" sounds too much like you're asking a favor, rather than ordering a drink for which you intend to pay. I tend to say and hear "could I get a...,please?"/"could I please get a...?", or "I'd/I would like...,please". :)

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  7. I'm in the US, and "Can I get a..." sounds brusque to my ears. I would say "I would like a..."

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  8. Bliss! I thought it was just me! I deliberately did not Google this issue till after I'd written about it, and now I have, and here you are. Marvellous. My rant on this topic - which is much less well-written and interesting than yours (but hey) is here:

    strawberryyog.blogspot.com/2007/06/can-i-get.html

    - which would be a link, if I had a clue, but as I do not, it may be almost any kind of mess. :)

    I am so pleased to discover that others have noticed this usage. Thanks for writing about it.

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  9. At least in my experience, "Can I get a..." IS used in England whil(st) placing an order at a fast-food counter, although not as frequently as in AmE. Here in New Jersey, where I'm currently living, it's pretty much the only phrase used at, say, McDonald's; "I'd like a #5 Extra Value Meal" seems unduly formal, and "May I please have..." even more so.

    And this brings up the use of the hash(BrE)/pound(AmE) sign to mean "number", which AFAIK is unknown in Rightpondia. Unless you've done it already and I missed it, it seems like a good idea for a new post?

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  10. Brusqueness in shops - when it was more common to ask for groceries over the counter, rather than pick them off the supermarket shelves, I used to bridle when American women (must have been from an Air Force base in the UK) said 'give me one of those also' instead of 'please give me' or 'I would like one of those too'.

    Of course, Brits sound like oafs to the French, because we don't begin each shoppping transaction with 'Bonjour, madame'.

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  11. My sense is that "can I get an X" is restricted to take-aways: can I get a coffee [to go]. I haven't been in the US for a while, but I doubt many would use it seated in a restaurant ("can I have/I'll have" would be more likely). If visiting a friend, "can I get a glass of water" would almost certainly mean, "can I go and get myself one."

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  12. I thought his complaint was going to be about the stupid size system at Starbucks which I refuse to cave to!

    My former employer changed the named from 'management team' to 'leadership team' as they felt they didn't really manage but lead. I think if they asked the staff they do neither.

    I've been in the UK 7 years now and I often don't know if what I'm saying is BrE or AmE anymore. I do recall a common phrase in the UK that to my Am ears sounded like the person/company wasn't all that interested in helping me, that perhaps my request was a burden... "We are dealing with your request" (at the ATM) or "We will deal with your request within X business days" (when sending an email to help desk for example).

    I'm not sure why I felt that this was so unhelpful and now for the life of me I cannot remember what we say/use in the US that seemed so much friendlier to me. I do remember fighting for use of a different phrase when I was helping develop a system that would send automated emails when someone contacted us though.

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  13. In the US we will handle or process your request.

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  14. I work in a bar which serves food and it bothers me when a customer orders with "can I get a..." rather than "can I have a...". Get implies an action which the requester doesn't perform a thus seems totally redundant. Does it make sense to ask someonedan for a drink in a way that implies you're going to help yourself then wait for the server to bring to you? To me it seems condescending.

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  15. Very interesting. 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?"

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  16. While in London, I asked an acquaintance who was born and raised in England what were some ways in which Americans might unintentionally offend while visiting the UK. (He had lived in the U.S. for several years.) He told me that it is perceived as very impolite when an American orders in a restaurant by saying "I'll have the ____" rather than "May/Can I please have the ____?" I was very grateful that he shared this with me as I had no idea of the difference in accepted ways of ordering food in our two countries.

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  17. When there's a big sign outside, a menu fixed (yes,fixed) to the window, a plurality of tables bedecked with cutlery, decorative and marketing materials, and a man standing next to you with and a notepad and pen, it would seem to me that saying "May/Can I please have the ____?" is a bizarre way of pretending they're not desperate to sell you any number of items they've already made very clear they are offering. The "May/Can I please have the ____?" form belongs very much in circumstances where there is absolutely no obligation or prior offer to comply, such as when making a request as a guest in someone's home.
    Or maybe that's what we Brits like to pretend is happening when we go to a restaurant?

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  18. I can remember the first time I heard "Can I get ..." and it came out of the mouth of my best friend, Dave.

    I can't name the time or place, but it was certainly more than 30 years ago.

    And yes, we were in a deli or fast-food joint ordering at the counter. "Can I get ..." sounded utterly alien to me and still does, though it wouldn't be long before I'd discover it had become the default locution in such situations (in the northeastern U.S., where I've lived most of my life).

    I'm guessing Dave picked it up in college while living in Boston. I've known him since we were young adolescents, so if he used it before then -- well, I suppose I may have been too young to notice it (though, given the way it leaped out at me when I first heard him say it, I don't think so).

    In the decades since I'm fairly sure I've never switched to it -- even once. Anything other than "I'd like a ..." or "Can I have a ..." would make me feel I'd somehow given in to an urge counter to my sense of self-respect.

    I don't think I've ever mentioned it to Dave, either.

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  19. I think this comment is longer than the original blog post (posted as two comments as it is too long for one). Sorry! I can only hope that it makes a useful contribution to the debate.

    This is still annoying me in January 2017! I hear 'Can I get' all the time in London and it still jars, every time. Over the years I've taken so many Americanisms and other neologisms into my lexicon that maybe I will become accustomed to it eventually (if I live that long). But it isn't its alien nature that makes it jar and difficult to assimilate.

    When ordering, 'Can I have X' is understood in both AmE and BrE, not because it is logical (logically the sequence would continue something like 'Yes, you can have X if I provide you with X' 'Then please do so'). Language doesn't need to be logical - the more apparently logical 'Can you provide me with X / Can you make me an X' would occasion strange looks either side of the pond. So my difficulty with it is not on logical grounds either.

    The reason it jars is that it goes contrary to the meaning of the word in the version of English that I speak.

    This sequence makes clear the traditional BrE usage (imagine a guest+host domestic context, where X is maybe an apple on display in a fruit bowl): 'Would you like an X?' 'Yes, please!' 'I'll get one for you.' 'Thanks, but I can get it myself'. In this sequence, 'getting' is an active process both times, not a passive one, and in this sense, 'get' is an active verb in BrE. The past tense is not so simple. 'I got a new X for Christmas' means 'I passively received' (or else it would be 'I got myself a new X'), while 'I got a latte this morning' is active because I went to the shop and bought it, and it means more than 'I received'.

    But there's more to it than just an active verb being used passively. In Mindy's early home life 'Can I get a soda?' meant 'Will you fetch me a soda?' - the AmE coffee-shop sense - whereas 'Can I have a soda?' implied Mindy herself would do the fetching. In BrE it is very different: 'Can I get a soda?' means 'Can I fetch a soda for myself?', whereas 'Can I have a soda?' leaves unmentioned who will do the fetching, perhaps to be supplied in the response: 'OK, but you'll have to get it yourself'. 'Can I get a new X' in BrE is asking the requestee to give permission to acquire an X, whereas in AmE it seems to be asking the requestee to provide an X.

    Anonymous in Colorado suggests that 'Can I get' is an appropriate response to 'What can I get for you?', when surely the most clearly appropriate response would be: 'Can you get X for me?'. This further illustrates the problem for BrE: the person doing the getting needs to be the person actively doing the providing, so a plain 'Can I get' request is presumed to be using an active verb and implies that the requester will do the providing him/herself.

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  20. Lynne, in your 'Can I get' list the sense is 'Am I able to obtain', and the desired response is not provision but explanation, as you hint without being explicit when you mention 'decaf latte'. So not the same thing as in a coffee shop. (The gmail one may be an exception, but the old hits (from 2007) still available more than 10 years after your post(!) asking for an invite rather than information appear to be on US forums.)

    Also, Lynne, your assertion that 'get' is the converse of 'give' (so meaning 'receive') is only sometimes true: it is also used when nothing is given or received, such as get wet, get a cold, get a train, get lost, get over it, get upset, get old, get the door, get a joke, meaning acquire, catch, become and so on. So receiving is only one sense, and not at all the sense that I (BrE) would associate 'get' with in 'get a coffee', which is 'obtain through my own actions'. If 'get' consistently means 'receive' in a coffee shop context then a barista should be able to say 'What can I receive for you?' --> 'Can I receive a latte?'. I do wonder whether it is being used in the 'acquire' sense, but this is unlikely when a barista would use 'get' in the sense of 'provide' and I can't see the same word being used in active and passive senses in a question-and-answer situation

    I see in memory a number of short ladies in various supermarkets who all wanted me to reach them something from a high shelf. Did any of them say 'Can I get an X from that high shelf'? Of course not, although they might have said 'I can't get an X from that high shelf'. They all said something to the effect of 'Could you get me an X from that high shelf please'. The coffee-shop version sounds so strange in this context that I doubt that even a short AmE shopper would say it.

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  21. Lynne

    Since one typically doesn't go and get one's presents from the giver ( one tends to passively receive them), it's clear here that British folk have the lexical/logical wherewithal to understand can I get a as a request.

    In my lexicon the difference is that you get things not from the person(s) you're speaking to but from a third party. So Can I get? isn't a request. It's ostensibly an enquiry — 'What do you think are the chances that I'll receive...?' Pragmatically it can amount to something closer to a request, but one for assistance in acquiring something — 'Can you influence [some agency] to give me...?'

    In another sense of get it means 'Can I fetch ... ?' This may function as

    an offer e.g. Can I get you a drink?
    a request for permission e.g. Can I get myself a drink?

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  22. My mother, who lives in the Northeast U.S. but whose native language is NOT English (though she moved to the U.S. as a child and generally speaks nearly perfect English) always orders at restaurants/coffee shops/etc. with "I want X," and I almost die of embarrassment every time. It just sounds SO RUDE. Like a child demanding something. I've tried suggesting other phrasing but at this point she's pretty set in her ways. I would be thrilled with "Can I get X."

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)