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I'm learning restaurant English. I tend to use "You can" but my English teacher always corrects me to use "Could you". She is telling me "You don't want your server to be angry".

I think if I say "You can give me a cup of water", "You can give me the check", and the server does get angry, and gives me bad service, I can give him less tip because of the bad service.

Is it OK to use "You can" rather than "Could you"?

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    It does come across as rather abrupt and rude. Even if the server has asked "Can I get you anything else?", common politeness requires you to say "I'd like X please" or "Can I have X?" You don't want to be unpleasant to the staff, do you? – Kate Bunting Jan 26 at 9:28
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    The answers below are 100% correct, but don't quite make the point firmly enough for me: as a learner, do not say "you can..." in this way. It is rude and your English teacher is completely correct. Use one of the alternatives recommended below. – TypeIA Jan 26 at 15:44
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    If you were to knowingly say something rude to a server in his language, then you would be acting wrong again if you were to deduct from his tip when he reacts as expected. If you were to say something rude by mistake, then you should apologize, but that should be less likely now that you know not to say "You can...". – Corey Jan 27 at 4:20
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    You don't seem to be questioning whether that phrasing might make someone angry or not. What does being able to give a lower tip if someone reacts badly have to do with whether or not this phrasing is polite? Have you asked your teacher why she thinks it will make someone angry? Why do you doubt her advice? Maybe it's not your intent, but this question reads to me as, "my teacher says my phrasing will anger someone, but I have power over that person if they try to do anything in retaliation, so is it okay to just keep using it?" – Kat Jan 27 at 4:21
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    The problem is not "you don't want your server to be angry". The problem is "you don't treat another human being like a slave". Your sentence literally means "I give you permission to give me a cup of water". If you think this is acceptable, you don't have a problem with English, you have a problem with what is right and wrong. Would you say that to your mother, or your grandmother? If not, then don't say it to anyone else. – Graham Jan 27 at 14:55
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You can is giving permission. If that is the context - they have asked permission for something - it is fine (though you may is regarded as more polite).

But when you are requesting something, you can is very condescending. It is something you say to a subordinate or servant, not to an independent person providing a service.

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    @Gqqnbig in my experience the server will not walk off after you ask if they have coffee. However I am curious as to why you'd ask about tea if you want coffee or the other way around. – findusl Jan 27 at 8:44
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    @Gqqnbig Would they do that in your native language? I realize it often doesn't work to assume things based off of your native language, but I think it can offer a good guideline, at least – Numeri says Reinstate Monica Jan 27 at 12:54
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    @Gqqnbig - If you ask "Do you have ____", they will simply answer your question. They won't take that as a request, unless the server says "Yes, we do" and you then say, "I'll have ____, please.". ...and even then, it's very common before the waiter leaves your table to ask "Is there anything else?" just so they make sure they have the full order before heading off. (Also, of course you could ask "Do you have coffee or tea?") – BruceWayne Jan 27 at 15:10
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    @findusl Perhaps they're Kenneth Arrow? (Decision theory joke) – Acccumulation Jan 28 at 6:55
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    @JCRM I also speak BrE and would say it depends on context. If the server just asked "What would you like to drink?" and I said "Do you have coffee?" I would expect them to take it as a request. If I just walked up to a server and asked "Do you serve coffee here?" I would expect them to take it as a true question. – Vality Jan 28 at 23:27
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  1. Server: Are you ready to order?
    a. Client: Yes. Can you give me hamburger and chips, please?
    b. Client: Yes. You can give me hamburger and chips (NO)

1 b. To tell someone to give you something, is considered rude and very bad mannered when ordering food or beverages in an establishment.

  1. Server: Are you ready to order?
    Client: Yes. Could/may I have hamburger and chips, please?

  2. Server: Are you ready to order?
    Client: Yes, I'll have the hamburger and chips. Thank you.

  3. Server: Is madam/sir ready to order?
    Client: I'd like the Steak-frites, medium rare, if that's not too much trouble

All four ways of ordering are acceptable, and polite if the speaker adds a "Thank you", a "please" or its equivalent. But examples 2 and 3 are the most common and polite ways to order food sitting at a restaurant table. The speaker is making a request, and requests are like questions, they are made by inverting the auxiliary or modal verb with the subject.

In a busy fast food restaurant, the client needn't use any of the modal verbs: e.g. can, could, will, would and limit him or herself to saying:

"Double cheeseburger, small fries, a regular (size) coke, and apple pie, please."

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  • That "You can give me hamburger" isn't even directly telling them to give you something. (Wouldn't that be just "Give me a hamburger"?) I'll admit to not being a native English speaker, but that makes it even worse in my ears. – ilkkachu Jan 29 at 9:54
  • Think of it this way: "You can make me a cup of coffee" is allowing someone to make a coffee. You might say this as a concession to a young child, i.e., I'd rather you didn't use the kettle for boiling water but... You can make me a coffee instead (because the coffee/espresso machine is safer/easier). Similarly, the hypothetical customer in "You can give me a hamburger.” is allowing the server, (giving him or her permission) to fetch a specific food item. – Mari-Lou A Jan 29 at 10:43
  • yes, exactly, it's not even directly giving an order. – ilkkachu Jan 29 at 10:54
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This answer is written from my perspective as an American.

I think that usually, saying "you can" is likely to sound rude. If you say "You can get me the check," it may sound like you're sarcastically saying, "I want the check, but since you haven't given me the check, you must have been unaware of the fact that you can get me the check."

On the other hand, it may sound like you're giving the server permission to give you the check. This is also bad, because the server doesn't need your permission to give you the check, and it's impolite to imply that they do need your permission.

I can't think of any time that I would recommend saying "you can" to a server. Even when I'm telling a server that they can keep the change as a tip, I say, "Keep the change, please."

A good rule of thumb is that if you're making any kind of request in the United States, you should always phrase it as a question.

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    I think "You can keep the change" is one instance where it's also quite acceptable and really not that rude. That's because in that case, they actually should be waiting for your permission to keep the remaining money; since until that point it is yours. – JMac Jan 27 at 15:22
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    @JMac Or if they are out of something you ordered and you are accepting an alternate as in "I'm sorry, we're out of Diet Coke, can I bring you a different soda?" "That's ok, you can just bring me water." – Kevin Jan 27 at 17:17
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    If the restaurant is anything above a diner,the server does need permission to bring the check. Bringing the check without permission would be rudely trying to rush the customers away from their table. The server should ask permission before bringing the check and it's perfectly reasonable for the customer to word their response as if granting permission. – The Photon Jan 28 at 0:12
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    @ThePhoton The server should get permission, but they don't need permission. And politeness still requires that the customer use phrasing that treats the bringing of the check as a doing them a favor. Phrasing that implies that the customer is doing the server a favor by allowing them to bring the check is rude, even if the server does in fact want to bring the check. – Acccumulation Jan 28 at 6:58
  • Another instance where "you can" could be allowable is when a server asks to clear the table of dishes, or at least some of them. It would be advisable to include a "thank you" afterwards, or simply say, "yes, thank you" to avoid any misinterpretation of being rude. – computercarguy Jan 28 at 21:03
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All the answers here are excellent. By now, you should have figured out that "you can" is a direct order, which is considered rude, and requests are polite (as they are in many other countries). So let me just add as a cultural studies scholar -- in cities where they're used to international visitors, most servers will make allowances, simply assuming you're not very proficient in English or in acquiring other cultures' polite behavior. So, you can make it a command -- it's not that insulting if you make your tone friendly -- but at the risk of being looked down on by people who understand cultural differences. Having power over the tip does not give automatic respect here. Your English teacher does deserve respect, however, because she knows more than you do, and is trying to help.

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    Having an accent and some polite bumbling around the language will go a long way towards smoothing the very sharp edges of the command. – Bryan Boettcher Jan 28 at 18:27
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As others have pointed out, the phrasing absolutely will come across as extremely rude and a bit non sequitur.

More importantly, you should never deduct from a server's tip for bad service in the United States. In the US servers are not paid minimum wage. They only make above minimum wage as a result of tips. In any case, deducting from the tip often won't have the desired effect since, in many restaurants, servers share tips.

Tipping is a bad custom with many unpleasant effects, but that's how it is in the US. If you'd like to protest it, join a service worker picket line. But under no circumstances should you deprive someone of their already meager wages because they hurt your feelings, especially if they hurt your feelings as a response to your insistence on using a rude phrase despite advice from your teacher to the contrary.

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“Yes, please.” Then proceed with your order is how I choose to answer “Can I get you anything?” Or “Are you ready to order?”

I wouldn’t use “You can” immediately following the question. It comes across demanding or rude, as previously mentioned.

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  • Still, far less rude than when "you can..." is used BEFORE being asked :) – rackandboneman Jan 27 at 16:45
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“Could you” is definitely the most common way to ask for service from the waiter. As other answers have mentioned, “may you” is up a notch in the politeness level.

However, this doesn’t mean you cannot use “you can” to tell a waiter to do something.

If you encounter a waiter who gives bad service on his/her part, the next time he/she says “Can I get you anything else?”, saying “you can (do something)” indicates that you are unhappy with the service, and that he/she should do something ASAP to resolve the issue.

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