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Real Vocabulary Quiz, Question 2: Is it OK to ask “Can I get a coffee?”

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Real Vocabulary with Scott ThornburyOur Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.

In our new series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’re bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.

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In the second question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to make a request by using the expression “Can I get …?” – as in “Can I get a coffee, please?”.

This usage originated in the US. It was popularized during the 1990s by television sitcoms like Friends, and it is now commonly heard throughout the English-speaking world.

But “Can I get…?” has been widely criticized. One objection – among speakers of British English – is that it is an American import. And, although this trans-Atlantic linguistic traffic has been going on for over 200 years, there are still many Brits who are happy to condemn words and expressions simply because they are American. On the BBC’s website, “Can I get…?” comes top of a list of unpopular Americanisms, with one irate contributor saying “It infuriates me. It’s not New York. It’s not the 90s. You’re not in Central Perk with the rest of the Friends”. But as we pointed out in an earlier post on the influence of American usage, “denouncing American English (one of the largest and most influential varieties) as if it is some sort of aberration makes no sense at all.”

Two further objections cropped up in a discussion on Lynne Murphy’s site Separated by a Common Language. When Lynne asked for people’s views on this expression, most responses were negative. One commenter – fairly typical of the general mood – said “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?”

None of this is very convincing. First, as our series on Real Grammar showed again and again, the rules which we learned in school – perhaps many decades ago – are not a reliable guide to contemporary norms. Like most people over 40, I too was taught that “May I have…?” was the “correct” way to make a request. But all the data shows that it is now quite rare for people to use “May I” in this way. Like anything else in language, the conventions of these interactions – for example, where a salesperson is providing a service to a customer – can change over time, and a general trend towards greater informality has made the use of “May I” sound rather pompous in most situations.

The second objection – based on the notion that “can” refers to your ability to do something rather than constituting a request – fails to take account of the most important factor in any interaction: context. To suggest that anyone would respond by saying “Well, I don’t know – can you?”, or that the question “Can I get a coffee?” would be interpreted – in a coffee shop – as meaning “Is it OK if I make a coffee for myself?” – both notions are equally far-fetched. In normal conversations, people take account of the wider context in order to understand one another’s meanings: this unspoken rule is what language philosopher H.P. Grice called “the cooperative principle”. And in the case of our coffee shop interaction, it would be absurd for the barista to interpret “Can I get a coffee?” in any other way than as a request.

Context is always important in clarifying the meaning of an utterance – and never more so than when we’re using a word like “get”. “Get” is one of the most hardworking words in English, with 15 main meanings in the Macmillan Dictionary (the first of which has eight subsenses). Numerous common phrases include get, and it forms part of no fewer than 45 phrasal verbs. Style manuals regularly warn writers against overusing get, and this is good advice. But advising people to avoid constant repetition of the same word is not the same as saying that some uses of get are “wrong”. In the Economist Style Guide, for example, we are told that  “A man does not get sacked or promoted, he is sacked or promoted. Nor does a prize-winner get to shake hands with the president, or spend the money all at once; he gets the chance to”. But why the Economist singles out these particular uses of get – which are frequent and quite normal – is a mystery. In the case of “Can I get…?”, it is obvious that the context here is an informal one. As the definition in the Macmillan Dictionary says, this expression is “used for asking for something in a café, bar etc”. If you’re having dinner at the Ritz, you probably wouldn’t address the wine-waiter with “Can I get a bottle of Chateau Lafite?” – but that’s a different kind of context. In the example in our quiz, it’s perfectly acceptable.

To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.

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Michael Rundell

4 Comments

  • Overheard in a pub on the Isle of Skye a few years ago. A large group of Australian walkers comes in out of the pouring rain, muddy boots and all. One asks the barman: “Can I get a Coke?”, to which he replies: “No, but I can bring you one.” @lexicoj0hn

  • You said that if we say “Can I get a coffee?” would suggest that we want to make it ourselves, but if we say “I got a present on my birthday” it doesn’t mean that we made this present but that it was given to us by someone else. So how is it different?

  • Good point LInka, but the sentence “I got a present on my birthday” suggests that the recipient doesn’t have much control over what the present actually is (or indeed whether a present is even given). I don’t think a British child could ask their parents “Can I get a new bike for my birthday?” ; they would have to say “Can I have…?” or “Will you give me…?”

    So, with your coffee example, to British ears it could sound, not like a request, but an enquiry as to whether it is possible to receive coffee, among other things, in this establishment. However, in such a case, we would normally expect an adjunct of place, eg. “Can I get a coffee *here*?”

    Since the adjunct of place is absent, the hearer looks for other meanings of ‘get’, realistically possible in this context, that take a simple direct object without an adjunct. And the meaning that best fits the bill is ‘fetch’.

    Of course, all this is very pedantic, and the barman in my previous comment knew perfectly well what the customer wanted. However, this use of ‘get’ is relatively new in British English, and some older people will interpret it as an unwelcome Americanism. Hence the irritation.

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