I'm starting to notice questions of this kind more and more often. It seems to me that what most people want is to ask us to allow them to do whatever they want to do but not exactly answer their questions.

They ask us whether they can do/say/write/speak something instead of asking whether it is correct and appropriate to do/say/write/speak something.

A crude instance:

Can I write this? "My need now blue pen"

The adequate answer should be, "Yes, if you want you can". And this is a proofreading question, which is off-topic.

But in fact the question asks whether it is correct and appropriate to write something like this, whether it obeys grammar rules or is accepted in any way.

So why do users most often ask us for permission rather than explanation?

  • 4
    So, you're saying that people who are learning English don't use it correctly? gasp Please, why are you taking them so literally? You know that they mean "is it correct".
    – Catija
    Apr 10, 2017 at 16:16
  • @Catija Yes, but when I started learning English I knew the difference between Can I write and Is it right to write. Apr 10, 2017 at 16:25
  • You're being a bit prescriptive. Feel free to comment when you vote to close as proofreading that they need to rephrase their question but complaining about it on Meta isn't going to fix things. And, honestly, if you really want to know why people ask permission rather than for explanation, that sounds like possibly a good question for ELU.
    – Catija
    Apr 10, 2017 at 16:34
  • 5
    According to American Heritage, the verb can has seven possible meanings as an auxiliary verb. Why are you so convinced these users are asking for permission?
    – J.R. Mod
    Apr 10, 2017 at 17:07
  • 1
    With folks that are less fluent, we have to help them ask the question they are really trying to ask. Keep in mind that they might also be learning how SE works, and all the documentation is written in the language they're learning. We should edit questions and titles to make them clearer. That doesn't just help the author understand how a question should be asked, it helps future visitors find answers.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 10, 2017 at 17:14
  • 3
    This is frankly very odd; I find much better things to complain about. Unless you have a specific example of a poor question which happened to have such a title, I don't see why asking for whether I can say something in some way is problematic. Heck, it might even be a more apt title than "is this grammatical?", because things can be grammatical but wrong in other ways.
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 10, 2017 at 17:53
  • FWIW (because a learner who stumbles upon this thread may think Can I say ...? is wrong-wrong after reading our discussion), You can say "call it" to mean "abort this attempt", without meaning "done for the day". doesn't sound wrong to this non-native speaker. It may not be my first choice in general, but I don't think it's wrong. Apr 11, 2017 at 10:52
  • 4
    @SovereignSun You seem to think that can is only used for physical capability. It isn't. It's also used for deontic and epistemic modality. Apr 11, 2017 at 11:48
  • 1
    @Araucaria yeh, I've got Russian thinking. If someone in Russia asks "Can I write this?" you always say "Yes"; one should ask "Is it correct to write this?" instead. It's like asking "Can I say this?" and you say "No, you won't be able to pronounce these sounds!" Apr 11, 2017 at 11:53
  • 2
    @SovereignSun People used to say that here. When people used can for permission, they used to try and correct them an make them use may. But in reality can has always been used for many different types of modality. Here's a video by Geoffrey K Pullum on this subject. Enjoy! Apr 11, 2017 at 12:04

1 Answer 1


That's being awfully pedantic in the face of someone seeking help regarding the proper use of English. If someone says, "Can I write {x}?", you can safely assume they mean "Is it proper to…"

There's an old joke that starts, "Can you tell me how to get to the airport?" — where the respondent says "Yes!" and walks away.

Don't be that person.

Why not routinely fix these posts in your role of helping people learn proper English rather than playing coy and calling them out?

Incidentally, I have no idea what e.t.c means in your title, so perhaps this post should be closed as unclear what you're asking. See what I mean? <smirk>

  • Okay, okay. I got the point. Apr 10, 2017 at 17:16
  • 1
    It's nothing personal. This kind of thing comes up on occasion, so I'm mostly talking over your shoulder for the rest of the community. Apr 10, 2017 at 17:38

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .