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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"+

https://english.stackexchange.com/search?q=%27May+I+know%27+

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?

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Feb 2 at 14:41

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

  • There is not BrE vs. AmE here. May I ask when this group was established? "May I know" is stilted. – Lambie Jan 31 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. – Duckisaduckisaduck Jan 31 at 17:15
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    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 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? – Learner2 Feb 1 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 at 13:10
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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.

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    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 at 11:38

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