May vs. can, or thoughts on the downfall of Western civilization

The next time you ask someone if you can have a piece of pizza and they haughtily look down their nose and say “You mean may you have a piece of pizza?”, take solace in the fact that you can now give them the verbal bitch-slap they deserve. I’m not sure when it happened, but the word “can” is now an accepted synonym of may, and you can absolutely use it to mean both permission and capability. Don’t believe me?

Of course, language purists will claim that this is further evidence of the downfall of English, but that seems a bit silly to me. English is itself the result of the ongoing bastardization of an amalgamation of languages, and continues to be in flux. More importantly, the evolution of the English language is an excellent example of emergent behavior. There’s no central authority for what constitutes proper English; we collectively determine correct usage through our everyday use. As in evolution, superfluous words are dropped from common usage, eventually becoming vestigial members of unabridged dictionaries. The eternal can/may debate is a good example of this, as I suspect that rarely has a misunderstanding happened because someone said “can” when they actually meant “may”. The context usually makes it abundantly clear, so why have two words when one will suffice?

I recently discussed this with a friend, who asked if I would be ok if in 50 years we all used textese in everyday situations. While something does bother me about the elegance lost in such a situation, I have to conclude that if textese becomes the accepted form of communication, I’m fine with it. And I’m fine with it because it’ll only become the accepted form of communication if it actually is effective at communicating. And as for the elegance lost, one need only read documents written around the time this country was founded to realize how little elegance we have today. The evolution of English continues, and no amount of wailing will slow it.

On the other hand, there’s just no excuse what I’ve heard a lot of lately: substituting “there’s” for “there are”, as in the following:

“There’s three pieces of pizza left.”

That’s just ugly.