4

I remember reading that the verb "let" has two meanings. The first one expresses "urging":

1) Let the children go to bed.

2) Let he call me back when he is back.

The second meaning expresses "permission":

3) Let him do it! (Grant him permission to do it)

I was wondering is it really so? And if yes, then what would be the difference between:

4a) Let him call me when he is back.

and

4b) May he call me when he is back.

Am I right that "Let he call..." is not correct?

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    There is (almost) never a situation where "let he" is a correct construction in modern standard English. I qualify that statement because if I left it as an absolute, someone would find an example to prove me wrong, but as a general rule, you should always construct it as "let him". This is a comment, not an answer, because I've never been good at explaining the rules of pronoun usage. – Jonathan Garber Nov 22 '13 at 22:02
  • I don't know where you got the notion that the verb let has only two meanings; the word is much more flexible that that. I would say it has at least two nuances among several possible meanings. – J.R. Nov 22 '13 at 22:36
  • The gist of the question is in 4a and 4b. – user1425 Nov 22 '13 at 22:51
  • @JonathanGarber: Just because you asked: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!. It's actually a contraction of the original biblical "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone", but it's common enough that it's in fairly wide idiomatic usage: (1, 2 3) – Matt Nov 23 '13 at 5:38
  • Also: 4, 5, 6 – Matt Nov 23 '13 at 5:54
5

The verb "let" has two meanings... I was wondering, is it really so?

Yes, it's so (although, as I mentioned in my comment, those aren't even the only two ways the verb let can be used).

Cambridge labels these two uses of the word as to CAUSE and to ALLOW.

As for your second question:

What is the difference between:

4a) Let him call me when he is back.

and

4b) May he call me when he is back.

it's important to remember that some uses of a word fall in between what a dictionary might define; one particular use of a word may not clearly map to one definition or the other. For example, the word strange can mean "unusual or unexpected," and it can mean "not familiar or well-known". But it's not hard to imagine a context where the word could be used to mean "unexpected and unfamiliar" – that wouldn't be so strange at all.


Given a choice between your two sentences, I think you'd want to use the word let:

Let him call me when he is back.

That would sound rather natural in a conversation such as this one:

Is Dr. Davis there?
No, I'm sorry, he's out of the office. Would you like me to page him?
No, that's alright. This isn't an emergency. He can call me when he gets back.

That's probably how I would word it. "Let him call me when he is back" doesn't sound quite as natural, but I'd still find it to be acceptable English.

As for:

May he call me when he is back.

that should probably be avoided. The "May he..." sounds like the start of a curse or a benediction:

May he rot in hell forever.
May the Lord bless you and keep you safe.

I suspect you really mean:

He may call me when he is back.

But I still don't like that wording. That would be okay if you were disciplining a child:

Junior missed curfew; he'll be grounded for a week. He may call me when he is back.

Now, having said all of that, I want to address the crux of the matter. You're not really granting permission for someone to call you back, nor are you causing it. You're simply assuring the other person that "when he gets back" is an acceptable time to call. I think that's why I prefer can over let .

Notice how Cambridge defines the nuances of can: In addition to to be ABLE and to ALLOW – which are rather similar to the meanings of the verb let – there is also the meaning of to OFFER. I suspect that's what you're trying to do, to offer the individual the option to call upon his return.


I know this is a really long answer; I hope it is not excessive but instead clears things up for you. Indeed, the words can, let, and may have many overlapping meanings, and it's easy to see how they could be quite confusing in a context like this. I think you've asked a great question, one that would be interesting to natives and non-natives alike.

  • Thanks a lot. I disagree a little bit with this statement:"... nor are you causing it. You're simply assuring the other person that "when he gets back" is an acceptable time to call." I think that I am causing it, as I am asking the first person to get the other person to call me or at least give him a reason to call. Otherwise the other person might never call me though he is able to do it. You are also able to call me but you won't do it. There must be a good reason for it to happen. To me "can" is too polite being a remote hint not a straightforward request. – user1425 Nov 23 '13 at 7:17
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    I didn't realize you were interested in making a request. If you want to be more direct, and make a request, you would use neither let nor may. Here's how I would make the request: Would you please have him call me when he gets back. Or, even more direct and urgent: Please have him call me as soon as he gets back. – J.R. Nov 23 '13 at 10:05
  • I don't remember where I got this sentence from, but I have it written in my notebook as an example of this "may". Do you find it unnatural? I mean the usage of MAY in it? --- "Ms. Swan, please tell Mr. Cullen that Riley rang, it isn't urgent but may he call me back as soon as he can?" – user1425 Nov 23 '13 at 12:19
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    I do find may a bit awkward there, and I would use could or would instead: "Please tell Mr. Cullen that Riley rang; it isn't urgent but could he call me back as soon as he can?" It might be an AmE/BrE thing, though; some regions might prefer may in that context. – J.R. Nov 23 '13 at 12:24

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