Today I’m thinking about the tyranny of “proper English” as she is spoke by (proper) South Africans. A childhood memory. We’re sitting around the breakfast table and I want some more milk.
“Can I have some milk please?”
Mother: “It’s not millk. It’s milk [as in silk]. And you don’t say “can I have” you say “may I have””.
Fast forward to this year. P and I are dining at “one of the best fish restaurants” in South Africa. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon. From the outside the restaurant looks like a little beach cottage with a fish painted on the roof. Inside it is very down-to-earth with a lot of bricks which have been signed by patrons. You are practically in the kitchen of Jacqui and Stefan’s homely bistro and Stefan is playing the talkative host, regaling a table (of his friends apparently) with some anecdote from his fishy past.
When it is our turn to order he berates us for having more than a single wheat-cracker between us for breakfast since we will not be able to appreciate the delicious fish. P apologises. We do not make the same mistake as the people next to us by asking the host what he recommends.
“This is the best seafood restaurant in South Africa,” he splutters at them. “Everything is recommended” or words to that effect. I bravely order some fish whose name I’ve never heard of before and am slightly underwhelmed when it arrives. This could well be because we’ve just had a fairly decent-sized breakfast. But it’s reasonably good. Roll on dessert. I ask if I can have the (highly recommended) choc pot.
“You may” is the smug reply. Now I am a bit put out by this smugness. I want to tell the chef (who is also the owner and now our waitress) that I know the difference between “may I” and “can I” and that I have chosen to use “can I” because I am enquiring whether it is possible to have the dessert. Her “you may” changes the dynamic of the situation. I am now a child being given adult permission. There’s an element of smug superiority about her insistence on using the more correct form of the verb. Perhaps she is also deliberately taking back the power that usually lies with the customer in those situations.
English teachers will tell you that you need to know the rules of grammar so that you can break them. Pedants will correct your usage at every opportunity. But then I can also often be pedantic. So where to draw the line?