language change and slang

‘Can I get …’

© Monkey Business / Fotolia.comCan I get some more paper?’
‘Yes, it’s on the table over there – help yourself.’

This would be an unremarkable question and answer pattern but the colleague who was asked this question by several native speakers of British English recently was the invigilator of an exam and certainly did not give that response! The expectation of ‘going and getting’ some more paper cannot have been in the students’ or the invigilator’s mind. So what the students meant was: ‘Can I have some more paper?’ (= I’d like to be given some more paper).

This use of ‘Can I get’ for ‘Can I have’ has become increasingly common in the younger age groups of British English speakers. I first remember noticing it in the late 1990s, when the Friends effect was strong in the UK. Now you will often hear someone asking ‘Can I get a coffee?’ or ‘Can I get an egg sandwich?’ at a takeaway counter. It is, of course, common in American English.

Both the UK and US versions of the Macmillan English Dictionary record the ‘Can I have’ formula for requests, giving it the specific context of polite requests for food and drink. They also both record the ‘go and bring back’ sense of ‘get’. But, in common with the most recently published ELT dictionaries, neither appears to show that ‘get’ is being used in requests for something to be given, in British English as well as American English.

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Susan Jellis


  • Actually, the American version does involve “going and getting”, but they want the other person to do the fetching, or are suggesting that they would do it themselves if it were allowed (which it obviously isn’t in a restaurant). “Can I get” is more polite than “Go and get me a coffee”.

  • The use of “Can I get…” goes back much further than episodes of ‘Friends’, and those of us old enough to remember the ‘Sixties will know Marvin Gaye’s (Holland -Dozier-Holland) song ” Can I get a witness” , also covered by the Rolling Stones. When the meaning of a simple phrase has to be explained in this way surely it has failed in its primary purpose of communicating, in this case a request!
    I’m no purist but to me it’s just another example of lazy English, just like ” Let’s go eat.”

  • My Grade 8 teacher (in Canada, so it was Grade 8, not Eighth grade), said always that “get” was the ugliest word in the English language.

    Since then, and it is more than sixty years, I have been trying to avoid the word get, and all its forms of got, gotten. I find that get is the word of choice in so many situations. I don’t get it!

  • I would suggest that indeed use of the verb to get is uncouth and demonstrates ignorance on the part of the user. The lowest common denominator, however, will always win and one day it will be wholly acceptable. (c.f. swearing). Thus the use of “may” rather than “can” or “could” already seems antiquated in effect.On reflection I probably say none of these things. “A prawn baguette, please” “Two teas and some toast, please” etc. Thus it is the please and, of course, the thankyou* that are important.
    * the noun is thankyou. Perhaps “spellcheckers” have a lot to answer for!!

  • I have noticed that U30s in the UK now tend to make food orders almost always saying “can I get”, and not “can I have”, or “I’d like..” It’s mildly irritating for old fogeys like me. However, I’m a TEFL teacher, and this kind of thing is important to take notice of. There’s no real point in teaching English as you think it’s used, or even how you think it ought to be used. You really need to teach it as it is really used at street level. At the very least, you should teach two or three common ways of making requests, preferably including the most up to date lingo.

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