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In the following exchange, "you may well ask" is used after a question has been asked.

‘What’s all the noise?’ ‘You may well ask.’

But I'm wondering whether "may well V" is normally used after the action denoted by V is completed or the above sentence should be treated as a fixed expression.

It seems correct to say "You may well do this or that" when giving advice. The action denoted by "do this or that" has not yet been completed.

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The usual usage of "you may well ask" is like this, said by one speaker:
" 'What's all the noise', you may well ask."
This is the speaker expressing that they think that another person may have noticed all the noise, and they expect a question about it.

As an exchange, as you have quoted it, it would mean that someone has noticed the noise and is asking about it. The person they are asking answers to say they think it is a justified question. But that phrase is much less likely as a reply than in the use shown above.

  • Is "you may well say so" correct in "A: John is the best teacher I've ever had. B: You may well say so"? – Apollyon Apr 3 '20 at 4:20
  • It's not wrong, but it would take more of the context to know the exact meaning. Is it something you have read, for which you can give a source? – Jack O'Flaherty Apr 3 '20 at 4:40
  • I made it up. Btw, would you treat "You may well ask" as an idiom or something? The sentence seems unusual if we compare it with "You may well give John a call," which implies the action hasn't yet taken place. – Apollyon Apr 3 '20 at 4:45
  • Yes, as Colin Fine said, it is best treated as an idiom. The example you just made up doesn't make sense on its own, but it could work like this: A:"I'm going to call John". B:"You may well call John, but he'll give you the same answer I did." – Jack O'Flaherty Apr 3 '20 at 4:53
  • Adding an afterthought, I guess it's a concessive statement, that is, it concedes what it is attached to, which may have been in question. – Jack O'Flaherty Apr 3 '20 at 5:11
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You may well ask is best treated as an idiom.

Normally may well means something like it is very likely that, eg

I may well go to the post office on my way home.

means more than just that I may go, but I think it is likely that I will go.

But You may well ask has a range of special meanings. At the least, it means "I thought you would ask that". But it often implies something like "That is an important question, and either it has the following surprising or annoying answer, or else nobody can find out the answer". In that sense, it usually has a connotation of annoyance, but not with the person who is asking the question.

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