You will occasionally hear several phrases in the English language that are essentially incorrect, yet people use them fairly often. While the person saying it is trying to be polite, is it correct to say, “May you please”?
It is incorrect to say, “May you please,” as we use the word “may” to ask for permission only in the first person. This means that you cannot use “may” before second-person “you” but, instead, “I.” If you are asking someone to do something for you, the better and correct phrase to use would be “Can,” “Would,” or “Will you please…?”
This article will take a closer look at why it is incorrect to use the phrase “may you please,” and explore the correct, alternative expressions and how to use them in everyday conversation.
Is It Proper Grammar to Say “May You Please”?
It is not correct to use the phrase “may you please” because, in essence, the words “may” and “you” cannot follow one another in that order when asking for permission. We can, however, say “May I please” and, in contrast, we can say “You may…,” which means that someone has permission to do something.
As an example, the sentence “May you please open the door” sounds incorrect to the English speaker’s ear when we combine “may” and “please” with the second person pronoun “you.”
Is It “Can You Please” or “May You Please”?
While there are circumstances where we can use “Can you please…,” “May you please…?” is incorrect as a request.
The word “can” has direct connotations to the ability to do something, which is why it’s generally informal for asking permission. Still, someone may ask you, “Can you open the door?” when there is some obstacle to opening the door.
More often, though, they’re asking you if you are willing to open the door. We can negate any ambiguity by adding the word “please” to the question: “Can you please open the door?” Here, it is fairly clear that the speaker is asking a person to open the door.
Similarly, while you cannot say “may you please explain…?” you could use the word “can” or could instead of “may” in these instances.
|Could you please explain the assignment?||May you please explain the assignment?|
|Can you please send me your address?||May you please send me your address?|
|Could you please let me know what time class starts tomorrow?||May you please let me know what time class starts tomorrow?|
“May You” Expresses a Wish
The only instance we can use “may” and “you” together correctly is when we express a wish for someone else — hope for the future. For example:
- May you have a wonderful week ahead.
- May you be blessed with a beautiful and healthy baby.
- May you get the promotion you so deserve.
In the above sentences, the word “may” expresses the idea of hope. The speaker expresses their desire that the person they are speaking to will receive something that they, the speaker, believe the addressee is deserving of.
However, because it is not a request or a question, you still cannot add the word “please.” The only time you might use “please” after “may you” is when using “please” as a verb,” which leaves room for misunderstanding.
- May you please the crowd.
Modal verbs like “can” and “may” express possibility, permission, or necessity. Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs, which we also call helping verbs, that cannot function as main verbs (source).
We use the helping verb “may” to ask for permission to do something, and we use the adverb “please” to add emphasis or express politeness when asking a question or making a request.
- May I please go to the canteen?
There is also a hierarchy of politeness and formality among modal verbs. The word “may” is the most formal and polite. There are other words that we use when we are trying to be polite, and they are, in order, “can,” “will,” “could,” “would,” and then the aforementioned “may” (source).
Therefore, if you were to say, “Can you open the door?” it would be informal but polite, yet not quite as polite as “Could you open the door?”
“May” is the most formal and polite, and adding “please” before the main verb adds another layer of politeness. We can do the same for other modal verbs (source).
- Can you please open the door?
- Will you please open the door?
- Could you please open the door?
- Would you please open the door?
The above example sentences become progressively more polite every time, although they still mean essentially the same thing.
May and the First Person
The main reason why “may you please” is not correct is due to the fact that you cannot use the sentence construction may + you for a request. Instead, the sentence construction for asking for permission is may + I.
You cannot use the word “may” before the word “you,” at least not in this context. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “May you have a wonderful time,” but not “may you open the door.”
Consider the example sentences below using various pronouns:
|May I go to the bathroom?||May you go to the bathroom?|
|May he use her laptop?||May you use her laptop?|
|May she accompany me to the restroom?||May you accompany me to the restroom?|
|May we sit on the floor?||May you sit on the floor?|
|May they eat their lunch inside?||May you eat your lunch inside?|
As you can see in the example sentences above, we can use the word “may” in front of all the pronouns except “you” and “it.”
Is “May I Please” Redundant?
Some would consider using “please” in the phrase “May I please” redundant since “may” already contains a degree of politeness. However, this perceived “politeness” stems largely from the word’s formality and grammatical accuracy in contrast to “Can I please?”
“May” and “please” are two separate parts of speech. While “may” is clearly a modal verb, it’s less clear what part of speech “please” is. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists it as an adverb when we use it this way, while the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries list it as an exclamation expressing strong emotion (source).
If it is an adverb, we might view it as an adverb of manner, similar to “kindly” (source). In this case, the modal verb indicates the main verb’s mood, while the adverb describes the manner of the main verb. Alternatively, we can view it as modifying the sentence as a whole.
In any case, we can add “please” to modify a request and add an additional layer of politeness, but it isn’t required. So, you could say, “May we please sit on the floor?” (source). So, while it’s not essential, it’s not redundant in the sense of excessive.
Although it is essential to avoid redundancy as far as possible, there are other examples of phrases that are seemingly redundant, but are, in fact, correct, as is the case with “most” and “definitely”; for an in-depth discussion, look at “Most Definitely: Meaning and Proper Usage.”
A permission-related word is, quite simply, a word we use when we ask for permission to do something, whether that be on behalf of ourselves or on behalf of someone else.
There are two main permission-related words we use in questions in the English language. They are “can” and “may” and their various derivatives. In general, we consider “may” to be more formal than the word “can.”
Historically, “may” was the first word that English speakers used to ask for permission. It overlapped with the ability to do something, the possibility of something, and asking for permission.
The word “can” first overlapped with the concept of being able to do something and only later took on the meaning of permission as well.
Therefore, it has become a well-known joke in English classrooms that a student will ask the teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” simply to have the teacher respond with a cheeky “I don’t know, can you?”
The humor of the above exchange hinges on the idea that the student used the incorrect word “can” instead of “may” and that the student was asking whether they had the ability to go to the bathroom, instead of asking for permission to go to the bathroom (source).
Additionally, as you may remember from the section above on may and the first person, we can use the word “may” in front of all the pronouns except “you” and “it.” This means that you can quite correctly ask, “May I go to the bathroom?” But you cannot ask, “May you go to the bathroom?”
However, you can use the word “may” after the word “you,” which would be correct, as in the examples below. But please note that the sentence will then no longer be a question but, rather, a statement where the subject grants permission to someone else.
If someone were to ask the question, “Can I go to the bathroom?” you will grant permission by saying, “You may go to the bathroom.”
We can apply the same principle to other sentences as well, for example:
- You may use her laptop.
- You may accompany me to the restroom.
- You may sit on the floor.
- You may eat your lunch inside.
There are a few alternative phrases that are correct and that we can use instead of the phrase “May you please.” These include the use of other modal verbs such as can, could, will, and would.
Can You Please and Could You Please
The words “can,” “could,” and “may” are all modal verbs. While “can” and “may” are present tense modal verbs, “could” is a past tense modal verb. Generally speaking, “could” is more polite than “can, and we consider “may” to be the most polite (source).
While we often use “could” for the past tense or the conditional mood, we can also use it to form requests for the present. When we use it in this way, it carries less force and is polite and formal.
Therefore, we can easily substitute the informal “can” with the more formal “could” if you want to be more polite when making a request. As it is not the most polite, we might also wish to use it in conjunction with the word “please.”
- Could you please open the door?
- Could you please fetch my cat from the vet?
- Could you please turn to page 34 of your textbooks?
The Modal Verbs Will and Would
We can also use “will” or “would” as alternatives to “may,” but they have a slightly different connotation. The word “will,” when we use it in the phrase “will you please,” is very direct and makes a very clear request.
- Will you please open the door?
In this example, the speaker is asking if the person is willing to open the door.
Like “could,” we can also use “would” for the conditional mood. Also, while “could” is the past tense version of “can,” “would” is the past tense version of “will.” “Would” is more formal and polite, carrying connotations of hope or desire.
- Would you please open the door?
When someone uses “would” in this way, there is a certain expectation that the person will comply voluntarily. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Either “will” or “would” will work just fine as alternatives to the incorrect “may you please.”
The phrase “May you please” is incorrect because you cannot use the word “may” with the second-person pronoun “you” when making a request. However, you can certainly respond to a request by saying, “You may.”
The correct alternative when making a request of someone would be to use another modal verb, such as “can,” “could,” “will,” or “would you please?”
While you can use “Can I please” in a less formal setting, it is more formal and polite to say “May I please.”