May I? - Permission

Quiz playing is a wonderful way to increase your knowledge of English as a Second Language. Remember that all of our ESL quizzes have titles that are both friendly and technical at the same time… In the case of this quiz you might like to tell your friends about “May I?” but no doubt your teachers will talk about the “Permission quiz”! If you hear a technical term and you want to find a quiz about the subject then just look through the list of quiz titles until you find what you need.

'May I ... ?' (or better still, 'Please may I ... ?') is the best and simplest way to ask permission to do something, in English. But there are a lot of quite interesting and subtle variations on this - else we would be using the same phrase a great deal, which would become repetitive and boring.

This quiz aims to help expand your awareness, and repertoire, of ways of asking permission.

  1. Which is the most usual phrase that someone in a shop, or other 'public-facing role', would use when approaching another person that has newly come in?
    The version in Answer 2 begins with a polite greeting, and then moves on, not only to the idea of helping (which, in the situation, should be obvious), but by asking HOW the assistant can help. This makes quicker progress than any of the other Answers.
    Answer 1 is possible and quite widely-heard still, but it is short and rather 'off-handed'; it sounds almost automatic, and lacking in any 'human warmth'. Neither Answer 3 nor 4 is usual; these are the wrong auxiliary verbs, and too tentative.
  2. In case the shop assistant (or whoever) has not already come to help you, what might you best say?
    Answer 1 is ridiculously florid; few, if any, serious English speakers would talk like that nowadays in such a situation.
    Answer 2 is far from bad, but the version at No.3 puts the initiative more with the employee.
  3. Which of these is the clearest, but firmest, polite request?
    'Can' is a little stronger than the conditional 'could', and we did say 'please'!
    ('Could' offers the other people an escape, since it may not be possible for them to change the level of the sound; but in Answer 2 they either 'can or can't'.)
  4. Pick the answer which fills the blank/s using the best and clearest accurate English.
    'It would help to know whether or not we ... ... take our sixteen-year-old daughter into the pub.'
    Either it is legal to do this, or it isn't; 'can' is the clearest way of establishing the fact of the matter. 'May' (Answer 2) suggests that you need permission from someone, rather than it being a clear matter of age under the law.
  5. Which is the most subtle ~ yet still clear ~ way of asking :
    ' ... ... your jacket this evening?'
    Answer 3 is the smoothest and least direct way of asking, but any of the others should get you an answer either way.
  6. Which of these would be the LEAST subtle way of opening an awkward topic in conversation?
    If it's an important question and you are a non-native speaker (and perhaps somewhat nervous about all this), this Answer should still 'work for you'. But in a sensitive situation, any of the others would offer a gentler way into the topic.
  7. (...) And which of these would be the MOST gentle and sensitive way to steer the conversation towards your tricky question?
    This one is the best, because (although it is leading towards a question) it is, itself, in the form of a statement ~ which it might be slightly harder for the other person to resist.
    Answers 1 & 4 are each better than No.2, which is really quite blunt and abrupt. Answer 1 puts a personal and emotional aspect onto the question (the other person may refuse, on the grounds that they are too busy or 'not in the right mood'). With Answer 4 there is also the open chance that the other person will not have enough time, or pretend that they haven't.
  8. Which of these would be the most appropriate way to offer a suggestion to a friend who is 'feeling a bit sorry for himself'?
    If you ask 'Why not ... ?' (Answer 1), the person may think of some awkward, contrary reason not to follow your suggestion ('It's too expensive / the remote control is broken / I can't be bothered', etc.); 'How about ... ?' is clear, yet indirect and almost impersonal.
    Indeed, rather than just using the standard language-learner's all-purpose phrase ('I'd like ... a chocolate ice-cream / to play tennis tomorrow / a puppy for Christmas', etc.), how about using 'How about ... ?' when you want to make a friendly suggestion? 'How about a game of tennis?' 'How about a trip to town this evening?'
  9. If one person finds it hard to believe, or accept, a piece of behaviour by someone else, the classic question in English is usually:
    A fairly dramatic 'How COULD you?' is the classic line (or, about someone else: 'How could she?' etc., with the rest of the sentence left unspoken, since, presumably, it is all too obvious what the person has done to cause offence).
    'How DARE you?' (Answer 2) is at least as strong, but there is a difference, because this one suggests disobedience.
    In a classic novel (or period drama on film or television), a major female character 'of a certain age' ~ a duchess, let's say ~ might ask a younger male relative 'How dare you?' when he has become romantically involved with someone that she has specifically forbidden him to see (in which case, how did he have the courage to go deliberately against her wishes?). She might ask him 'How could you?' if he has done something cruel or distasteful, like stealing a pig from the neighbouring estate and coming home in filthy clothing with it in the small hours of the morning.
  10. Which of these would be 'just about right' in a situation where you are at a table among quite a lot of English friends?
    This is perhaps just a little 'clever' (Answer 2 would also be fine), but your English friends will probably congratulate you on your good manners if you use this one!

Author: Ian Miles

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