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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers


I called AT&T this morning to make some changes to my account. Predictably, I first had to endure several minutes of inane "conversation" with an inanimate voice, answering pointless questions until the voice was satisfied that it could not and would never understand me. Then I had to wait on hold for several more minutes (during which I hurled invective at AT&T concerning the stupidity and cruelty of recorded customer service) until an actual person finally came on the line and — also predictably — said, "Can I get your phone number?"

Ah, me. What ever happened to the phrase may I have? I mourn the loss of this polite and cultivated way of prefacing a request. All you hear these days — from anyone younger than 70, at least — is can I get. To my ear this sounds utterly graceless, pedestrian, and vulgar.

Call me a snob if you like. Dismiss me as old-fashioned. I don't care. Someone has to stand up for aesthetics in language, and it might as well be me. And there is no question that, aesthetically speaking, can I get is at best utilitarian and at worst uncouth, while may I have is urbane.

Why, when it comes to language, are Americans so eager to sound plebeian and so afraid of sounding patrician? What's so bad about a little cultivation, a touch of class, a soupçon of suavity? Americans routinely express admiration for how the British use the language — because it seems more polished and refined. So why are we so quick to condemn as pretentious any show of refinement in American speech?

The campaign to preserve elegance and beauty in the English language is waged not on some glorious battlefield where good clashes with evil but in repeated daily skirmishes with the forces of vulgarity. I will continue to say may I have until the day that, like AT&T's bland, inanimate voice, people can no longer understand me.

I close today's mini-tirade with a bit of doggerel from my book What in the Word?

Can I get? Can I get?
No you can't, at least not yet.

Can I get? Can I get?
Your diction makes me quite upset.

Can I get? Can I get?
The question lacks all etiquette.

Can I get? Can I get?
Do I hate it? Yes, you bet!

I want to tell the can-I-getter
That may I have is far, far better.

Better still is when you say:
May I please have? Indeed, you may!

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