Submitted by clivebellmore  •  August 26, 2004

“Can I get” vs. “May I have”

I am told by my business partner that using “Can I get a...” from a waiter is verging on the rude and that you should use “please may I have...”.

Would you agree?

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Did you mean TO a waiter?

Certainly "May I have" will be perceived as more formal and courteous, but "Can I get" will not necessarily be perceived as rude, depending on the tone of voice. "Could I get" is even better, though, or "Could I have". Omitting "please" in any such request might sound a tad rude, admittedly.

It also may depend whereabouts in the world you are.

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This is an etiquette question, not a grammar question, lol :)

It depends on where you are. If you're in a formal business lunch, you certainly must say, "May I have..." or, "Would you please bring me..." another napkin, for example. In an informal business lunch, you may say, "Could I have..." or, "Please get me...." In a casual setting (such as a cafeteria, where the server stands behind the line and hands you what you point at), it is courteous to say, "I would like some...."

It's always OK to answer, "The broiled fish special, please" in response to "What can I get for you?" or, "May I take your order?"

Cowboys eating with oil rig workers at a Texas barbecue joint are commonly heard to say, "Miss, get me some of that sliced pork." I guess that's not shockingly disrespectful... but it's not polite.

And always, always say "Thank you" to the server when they have done what you asked.

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If I were a waiter and somebody said "can I get a coffee", I would be inclined to say "go ahead" and then just stand there.

If they the customer then asked where the beverage was, I would say: "Oh, I'm sorry; I thought you wanted to get it yourself. Would you like me to get it for you?"

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OK, I think the concensus is 'can I get' is not ideal, but said in the right manner and with a 'please' is marginally acceptable.

And I was in Australia. Does that make a difference :)

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I think that has a lot to do with whereabout you are. I am always afraid of speaking to elderly native English speaking people since the way we speak English here in Denmark may sound totally vulgar.
Also I have for instance learned something, let say, from an Irish and then that wasn't quite understood the same way when I said it to an American.

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"Can I get" isn't rude, it's just casual. In a diner or something, I would have no problem asking "can I get," especially for things like coffee refills. In a formal setting, I'd use "may I have," but when Flo the waitress is making small talk with me, I'm not going to play Miss Manners.

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I usually say "I'd like some..." or "Can I have..." so that is neither. I don't always say please, unless my kids are with me... to be a good influence.

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Nick, I don't think the problem with CAN I GET is that it's rude, but that it isn't understood everywhere. Certainly in Britain CAN I GET would be interpreted CAN I FETCH FOR MYSELF, which in a restaurant would seem a rather odd request to English ears.

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Dave (from Sept. 21) is correct. Asking "Can I..." implies that you are questioning your ability to perform any given action. For instance, asking "Can I wash my hands" implies whether or not you can physically wash your hands.

Asking "May I..." denotes that you are asking permission to do something. For example, asking "May I have another book," implies that you would like permission to take an additional book.

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Eurgh. No, that's not what I meant. CAN I and MAY I have long overlapped in English usage as a means of requesting permission. It was GET that I was suggesting would confuse an Englishman, which in that particular context would sound like FETCH FOR MYSELF.

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