How "may" I help you? vs How "can" I help you?

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Elle:
Hi!
I am just wondering which is the best question to ask when offering help to somebody. Should it be:
a) How may I help you?
b) How can I help you?
I always chose "How can I help you?" and whenever I use "may", my sentence is often "May I help you?". This is what I feel is correct because "How may I help you?" sounds awkward to my ears. However, with the growing trend of call centers since the last few years, I started hearing "How may I help you?" more often than "How can I help you?". Is it really correct to say "How may I help you?" or are the call center agents trying to be more solicitous and so they used "may"?
Thanks in advance.
Elle
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dwjo:
[nq:1]Hi! I am just wondering which is the best question to ask when offering helpto somebody. Should it be: a) ... or are the call center agents trying to be more solicitous and so they used "may"? Thanks in advance. Elle[/nq]
Both sentences are acceptable. There is nothing wrong with "How may I help you?"
dwjo
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meirman:
[nq:1]Hi! I am just wondering which is the best question to ask when offering help to somebody. Should it be: ... help you?". This is what I feel is correct because "How may I help you?" sounds awkward to my ears.[/nq]
Not to mine. Say it about 30 times and then maybe it will sound ok to you too.
[nq:1]However, with the growing trend of call centers since the last few years, I started hearing "How may I help ... may I help you?" or are the call center agents trying to be more solicitous and so they used "may"?[/nq]
In theory those people can come over to your house and bring you dinner, draw your bath, make up your bed, and lay out your pajamas. They can even scrub your back. Even on the phone they can teach you a list of curse words in English or their native language.

But you may not want or allow them to do these things.

So they ask "How may I help you."
It's just like asking the teacher "Can I go to the bathroom?" "I don't know. Can you?"
[nq:1]Thanks in advance. Elle[/nq]
s/ meirman If you are emailing me please
say if you are posting the same response.
Born west of Pittsburgh Pa. 10 years
Indianapolis, 7 years
Chicago, 6 years
Brooklyn NY 12 years
Baltimore 20 years
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Elle:
Thanks for the reply. I often reply to anyone excusing himself/herself to go to the toilet "You can but you may not." but this "How may I help you?" felt really awkward to my ears. "May I help you?" sounds friendlier to me.

Emotion: wink
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Raymond S. Wise:
[nq:1]to sentence may[/nq]
[nq:2]Not to mine. Say it about 30 times and then ... I go to the bathroom?" "I don't know. Can you?"[/nq]
[nq:1]Thanks for the reply. I often reply to anyone excusing himself/herself togo to the toilet "You can but you may not." but this "How mayI help you?" felt really awkward to my ears. "May I help you?" sounds friendlier to me. Emotion: wink[/nq]
For my part, I find the "I don't know. Can you?" and "You can but you may not" to be contemptible answers. There is no mystery what the child posing the question is asking indeed, the usage is now standard and the teacher is not only being dishonest by feigning ignorance about what the questioner is asking but is showing actual ignorance by being unaware of the standard nature of the usage.
From MWCD11: "The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts." The AHD4 has a usage note making a similar point.
Standard English is spoken in classrooms, but that is not the same as the classroom being a formal context it is not. The English spoken in classrooms is informal Standard English. (This is my experience: Have you ever been in any classroom where you were forbidden from using contractions in speech, for example?)

Raymond S. Wise
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
E-mail: mplsray @ yahoo . com
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Harvey Van Sickle:
snip
[nq:2]Thanks for the reply. I often reply to anyone excusing ... ears. "May I help you?" sounds friendlier to me. Emotion: wink[/nq]
[nq:1]For my part, I find the "I don't know. Can you?" and "You can but you may not" to be ... feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts." The AHD4 has a usage note making a similar point.[/nq]
Even in what might be considered formal or at least semi-formal settings, "can" has been used this way for a century or more: Burchfield has a quotation from the Church Times in 1905: "No one can play the organ during service time without the consent of the Vicar".

Cheers, Harvey
Ottawa/Toronto/Edmonton for 30 years;
Southern England for the past 21 years.
(for e-mail, change harvey to whhvs)
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Martyn:
[nq:1]However, with the growing trend of call centers 'since the last few years', ..[/nq]
'since the last few years' sounds awkward to my ears. Is that right ?
Martyn
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Peter Duncanson:
[nq:2]However, with the growing trend of call centers 'since the last few years', ..[/nq]
[nq:1]'since the last few years' sounds awkward to my ears. Is that right ?[/nq]
It doesn't sound right to me. "since" is sometimes used by non-native English speakers to mean "during".
"during the last few years" or "since a few years ago" would be more normal.

Peter Duncanson
UK
(posting from a.e.u)
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Dr Robin Bignall:
[nq:2]However, with the growing trend of call centers 'since the last few years', ..[/nq]
[nq:1]'since the last few years' sounds awkward to my ears. Is that right ?[/nq]
It's not idiomatic English, and is most probably a direct word-for-word translation from French, meaning "during the last few years" in this case. I've heard German speakers (and eastern Europeans) say "I've been here since a few days", to mean that they've been here for a few days. This sense of 'time passing' of a word that translates to 'since' in English ('depuis' in French, for example) is perfectly valid in the original languages.

wrmst rgrds
Robin Bignall
Hertfordshire
England
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