May I know when this group was established?

Hello. I learned in a text that we can say 'May I know...?' in formal situations. But an American teacher of English told me it sounded unnatural. He said 'May I borrow your phone?' is okay (but formal). He said he has never heard any native speaker use 'May I know...?'

But I found these examples on this website: https://ell.stackexchange.com/search?q="may+I+know"+


And these examples on Reverso: https://context.reverso.net/перевод/английский-русский/may+i+know

May I know if this American teacher was correct? He says May + to know sounds weird because we don't need to ask permission to know something.

Note: I ask about normal English contexts, not about contexts like a servant talking to master!

He says things like "Could you please tell me...? and "Would you mind letting me know...? are much more natural. Are there other ways?

Also, is there a difference between British English? Is 'May I know...?' more natural in British?

He also said to look at this Google gram: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=May+I+know&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CMay%20I%20know%3B%2Cc0

May I know what this gram means?

  • There is not BrE vs. AmE here. May I ask when this group was established? "May I know" is stilted.
    – Lambie
    Jan 31, 2019 at 15:25
  • @Learner2 Welcome, well written and researched question if I may say. We don't normaly translate Google's arcane secrets here, but it seems to indicate that the phrase was more in common usage in the 1960's and that usage has declined dramatically to today. The phrase "If I may know" does indeed sound stilted, then again, business meetings can be that way. In informal situations it might sound sarcastic. Jan 31, 2019 at 17:15
  • 5
    I think we're dealing with a rather subtle bit of semiotics. MY servant will ask me "May I ask why you're carrying an umbrella on this sunny day?" My servant needs my permission to do anything, including ask a question other than a question asking permission. In contrast, YOUR servant may ask me "May I know the purpose of your call?" Your servant does not need MY permission to ask me a question, but he does need my permission to know the answer. Thus, the usage is stilted, but it is useful when a polite gatekeeper must assert authority without asserting dominance.
    – remarkl
    Feb 1, 2019 at 0:05
  • @remarkl I wanted to know about everyday situations, not about servants, gatekeepers. May I know if my expression sounds unnatural in everyday English general setting?
    – tigereye
    Feb 1, 2019 at 10:39
  • @learner2 I wrote that the usage is "stilted," which means that it sounds unnatural in everyday English. The natural-sounding usage is as sumelic writes in his/her proposed answer. (Likewise, "Does...my expression sound unnatural?") Anything else, especially anything that uses more words, sounds, breath, or time, must deliver another message. I offered an explanation of the social signaling in the otherwise stilted "May I know."
    – remarkl
    Feb 1, 2019 at 13:10

3 Answers 3


I agree in all respects with that American teacher. (I am also American.)

For a question like this—one that just asks for information and doesn't constitute a request for the listener to do anything at all onerous or time-consuming—I don't think it's particularly impolite to use a direct question without any softening words: When was this group established?

But if you want to be less abrupt, another way of asking a question like this (aside from the constructions you mentioned in your question) is to use "I'd like to know...."

I guess one comment that I have is that I think that "Could you tell me...?" is formal and polite enough by itself; adding "please" to a question like this actually seems to make it more forceful rather than less. The word please is used so often in requests that it can have a fairly demanding tone, depending on the context and on how you say it, so I think it's safer to avoid using it. People may have different opinions about this, though.

  • 3
    Agreed. If someone asks "May I know..." then I guess that English is not their native language. But I will understand them.
    – GEdgar
    Feb 1, 2019 at 11:38

I don't have enough points to comment on sumelic's response, but I agree with him (as a native speaker of "Canadian" English). I would say "Can you tell me ..." instead of "Could you tell me ...", also without the please (for the same reason - hint of demanding tone). If you are comfortable with the person/group (e.g., not a complete stranger or not clearly in a subordinate role), the direct question "When was this group established?" is fine too.


American English native speaker here. This stuff always interests me; especially if I can learn where a non-standard phrase came from. "May I know," used in normal conversation without some odd power disparity would absolutely be a sure fire indicator of a non-native speaker as GEdgar said above. There's nothing inherently really wrong about it. It's obviously fully understood and conveys the request unambiguously. However, I would classify it as somewhere between interesting and slightly distracting. By distracting, I mean if said to an American, it might create a delay in the response while they process what they just heard. I would need a second or two to say in my own head, 'well, that's one way to say that'. But I would only 'correct' such a question from a friend. By correct, I mean to say that I would tell a person who wanted to become a fluent/native speaker that this is not something you would ever hear from a (second generation or more) native. Also, I agree with one of the problems being that in normal conversation you don't ask permission to know something, unless it's privileged info. In that case, 'Am I allowed to know' or 'Are you allowed to tell me' might be better. In this case though, you're literally asking if you can know something, without proposing or asking about the real solution which is to have that person provide that knowledge. 'Sure, you can know this... ok see ya!'. Question answered without the actual info being transmitted. But as I said, peeps know what is being asked, despite it being a little jarring and maybe 20 percent funny to hear. One other observation I have for this phrase is, "golly that's polite". Because it is, though it's more awkward than the just-as-effective 'could you please tell me...' or 'would you mind please telling me...'. Fun one, glad someone asked this.

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