2

The student asked if he can join the basketball team.

The student asked to join the basketball team.

I am wondering if they mean pretty much the same thing. I think it means the same thing, but it sounds odd to me. However, I don't like number 1, because the sentence is a bit longer.

  • The student in the first sentence seems humble and polite while the student in the second one seems determined and forward. – Tasneem ZH Mar 9 at 12:40
2

They mean mostly the same thing. I need to add another option to talk about it properly.

The student asked if he may join the basketball team.

The student asked if he can join the basketball team.

The student asked to join the basketball team.

The may form is reporting a request for permission to join. It doesn't indicate how polite the student was in his request, just that he was at least a little polite, such as if he asked, "May I join?".

The can form is reporting the student asked for the technical ability to join. There is a tendency to confuse this for being polite, because it's written a little more formally than the final version, and polite is generally less common. However, looking at it from how the question would actually be asked, "Can I join?", we see it's the shortest form for the request that isn't explicitly asking for permission.

The final form doesn't indicate whether or not the student was polite or formal. The assumption is that it wasn't a polite or formal request. That having been said, if the student actually did ask, it was probably the 'can' for. That is, "Can I join?" or "Would it be possible for me to join?" rather than "May I join?" It's also possible that the student just declared an interest, such as "I want to join", and it was misreported as a request.

All this having been said, when I was in school, I had several teachers who claimed that the "can" version was the polite version, and to get the points right, one needed to agree with them. I found it humorous that they asserted the 'may' form was archaic, and then wondered why people weren't ever polite anymore. Admittedly, they didn't generally ask about the lack of politeness in the same breath.

  • 1
    Your first two examples would normally be framed in the past tense (might, could, rather than may, can). Although in principle I agree with your "permission / ability" distinction, I'd that in practice it rarely applies today. And the may/might forms are so strongly associated with dated/formal use today that they do normally carry "polite" implications, just as much as they imply permission rather than ability - whereas in and of itself, can/could is inherently ambiguous on that front unless context suggests otherwise. – FumbleFingers Mar 9 at 13:30
  • @FumbleFingers I was choosing to not argue tense with the OP because there are cases where that framing is correct - specifically, while the question of the student joining the team is still an open matter. – Ed Grimm Mar 9 at 13:56
  • 1
    Yeah - I'm not disagreeing with anything you did say above (I upvoted it). But my guess is that on average it wouldn't still be an open question (and/or speaker neither knows or cares about that). So with no other specified context, my guess is the OP (and perhaps other learners looking at this) might well need to have that point clarified. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 at 15:16

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