I've wondered how to ask people to do you a favour without making a grammatical or implicational screw-up.

For example, I've considered these sentences:

Can you pass the ketchup, please?

(Meaning: Are you able to pass the ketchup?)

May you pass the ketchup, please?

(Meaning: Do you have permission to pass the ketchup?)

The following sentences might make sense, but seem a bit rude.

Will you pass the ketchup, please?

Pass the ketchup, please.

What makes sense when you ask someone to do something simple?

  • 1
    Whoa, you're taking the meaning of "can" too literally! The point is, it's the normal structure for requesting something- even if it's rudimentarily simple. I don't get where your confusion about "will" comes, though. – M.A.R. Feb 8 '15 at 17:02

Things you can say to get some ketchup handed to you:

1: Can you pass the ketchup, please? (Note: do not use with english teachers, as they may say, "I can, yes," and then fail to do so until you use a different phrase. Nearly everyone else will just hand you the ketchup, though.)

2: Will you pass the ketchup, please? (Note: use tone and body-language to indicate you are not upset, and make sure your "thanks" is cheerful. This phrasing can be used in an angry way, so it's not as good as...)

3: Could you pass me the ketchup, please?

4: Would you pass me the ketchup, please?

5: Pass [me] the ketchup, please? (Note: this is not rude at all, unless you are saying it in an angry fashion. The "please?" at the end makes it okay.)

5a: Please pass the ketchup. (Note: again, tone of voice is key; so long as you aren't saying it with exasperation, and add a "thanks!" when you get it, you're fine.)

6: Could I get some ketchup over here, please? (Note: again, tone of voice distinguishes between grouchy and "hey, need some ketchup here! Thanks!")

7: My kingdom for the ketchup, woe, woe! (Note: use only with people who appreciate melodrama, and make sure to have the back of your hand to your forehead as you declaim.)

EDITED TO ADD: 8. As Codeswitcher notes in the comments, "Might you pass me the ketchup?" is also acceptable, and in American, probably doesn't need a "please" (though you can certainly add one!). It would tend to be seen as formal/British, and therefore "polite by definition" if the body-language and tone of voice were not hostile.

Don't use "May you pass the ketchup" under any normal circumstances.

  • Then under what circumstances should I use "May you pass the ketchup?" – Pyraminx Feb 8 '15 at 17:25
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    If there is some question as to whether the person has permission to touch the ketchup bottle. Which is theoretically possible, I suppose, like if they have a religious prohibition against tomatoes, or if they're a kid who isn't allowed to touch the fancy container for the home-made ketchup. But if you ever find yourself in such circumstances, I will be very surprised. – A.Beth Feb 8 '15 at 17:34
  • I immediately had a hostage scenario in mind for "May you pass...", but I've been watching NCIS lately ;-) – Stephie Feb 8 '15 at 17:54
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    THE KETCHUP SHALL NOT PASS! Ahem. Sorry, too much Lord of the Rings... – A.Beth Feb 8 '15 at 17:58
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    You missed the unusual but legit (and maybe confusing @Pyraminx?) "Might you pass me the ketchup?" Sounds like "May you...", but "may you..." is essentially never correct. – Codeswitcher Feb 8 '15 at 18:04

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