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I have seen this:

May it please the court, I do not aim to go there.

What would you say is the grammatical function of May it please the court?

Please seems to be a verb here, and it seems to be intransitive, with no object, as in He was pleased. Its subject argument seems to be it, and may seems to be an auxiliary verb.

Should I understand this as a dependent clause? Must I write it like this?

It may please the court, . . .

Or may I write it as an independent clause:

It may please the court.

And may I use it like this and get a complete sentence?

I may like to speak to you, may it please you to.

Or may I write

May it please you to, I may like to speak to you.

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    Do you have a book on basic English grammar? Your questions are really hard to understand with all the seems and mays in them. Read anything in English, except your own questions: How often is the word seems used? A great deal less than you use it. That's why I suggest, not for the first time, that you concentrate on some basic sentence construction. – user6951 Jun 2 '15 at 4:39
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    @pazzo The word "seems" is used rather a lot when describing one's uncertainty about a situation. ELL questionsusually describe uncertainty, often in the form of "I think that X works like Y but I'm not sure." I don't see the relevance of comparing the frequency of "seems" in ELL questions with its frequency in general English text. – David Richerby Jun 2 '15 at 7:39
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    @DavidRicherby I have read dozens of saySay's questions. To me, he/she uses seems as an equivalent to the verb to be. This is from their very first question, even in constructions which clearly are not expressing uncertainty. I think the OP really does not understand how to put a basic English sentence together. Nor have they shown anything but a grasping (but not a grasp) of parts of speech. The user would benefit greatly by learning basic grammar points. – user6951 Jun 2 '15 at 7:46
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    @pazzo I think OP is fundamentally confused with how English expresses modality. saySay appears to understand seem as a sort of "modal copula" --basically what we ordinarily express with may be-- and to may as sort of "generic modal" employed to express any degree of undertainty. I'm reluctant to close any question on this basis; modality is one of the trickiest points of our language. But with goodwill and imagination I think it's possible to understand what saySay is asking. – StoneyB Jun 2 '15 at 17:04
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    @StoneyB I'm really trying to help the guy/gal. But I can't understand his/her English. To me, beginning with the basics is the route l would go face-to-face rather than trying to decode their idiosyncratic uses, especially of seems, which fills the posts of saySay. – user6951 Jun 2 '15 at 17:16
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Pragmatically, May it please the court is an archaic formula expressing the speaker's deference to a presiding judge: an acknowledgment that strictly speaking nothing may occur (and nothing may be omitted) in the courtroom without the judge's permission.

The syntax—the part of the meaning which is expressed by the order and relationship of different words—is complex.

  • In this particular forumula, please is an ordinary transitive verb. It (which refers to the main clause which follows) is its subject and the Court is its object. Please itself is cast in the infinitive (non-tensed, non-inflected) form because it is the complement of the modal auxiliary verb may, which is the finite head verb of this clause.

  • Internally, the inversion of may with its subject (may it instead of it may) signals that may bears an optative sense—it expresses a wish or hope.

    May you be forgiven! = I hope that you will be forgiven.
    May God strike me dead if I am lying = I hope that God will strike me dead
    May it please the Court = I hope that it will please the Court.

    Such optative clauses may stand on their own as independent clauses, as they do in my first two examples. In this case, however . . .

  • Externally, the formula acts like a condition clause (an if clause or protasis) in a conditional construction of the sort that Declerk and Reed call a ‘Performative-Q Utterance conditional’. In fact, it can also be expressed as a frank if clause: If it please the Court.

    It expresses a necessary condition for the following consequence clause; it is semantically equivalent to

    I only say what follows if it pleases the Court that I do so.

The expression is entirely archaic, used nowhere except in the courts and by nobody except lawyers; I can think of no other situation in which such extreme deference is called for. (It may be that formal addresses to the Queen are prefaced with ‘May it please your Majesty’, but that is not a situation likely to arise for most of us.) It should not be emulated in ordinary speech or writing. In most contexts the Present-day English equivalent is a simple Please:

I would like to speak with you, please.
Please, I would like to speak with you.

In these, please is no longer understood by native speakers to be any sort of verb; it is merely a "discourse marker" expressing politeness in making a request.


Optative is a technical term signifying a particular modality which marks a sentence as having some meaning distinct from an ordinary assertion of fact. Linguists have had to name many such modalities, because every language has different ways of expressing different shades of meaning.

  • Some languages use distinct inflections of the verb to express particular modalities--for instance, the subjunctive inflections in many European languages may express modality, among many other things.

  • In other cases modality may be expressed by particular words; in English, for instance, possibly (epistemic modality), wish or hope(optative modality), let's (modality), and so forth.

English also has a very small number of verbs (can/could, may/might, must, shall/should, will/would) with distinct syntactic properties which are called modal verbs because they are ordinarily used only to express modality. Unhappily, they are called upon to express many different sorts of modality, so it is very difficult to learn how to use them properly.

Conditionals:A Comprehensive Empirical Analysis, Mouton de Gruyter 2001.

  • In May it please the Court May it please the Court may get discerned optative? May optative seem like subjunctive, cohortative, and, or, maybe something like jussive? May it please the Court may seem like a conditional (dependent[?]) clause, a protasis that goes to an apodosis? Maybe, May it please the Court, X. So May it please the Court may not stand a dependent clause? So I think please may seem a modal, subjunctive verb? I may not get utilization of modal verbs? (And syntax mostly signifies where words get placed?) – saySay Jun 2 '15 at 20:20
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    I always hear lawyers say "if it pleases the court" ... but that could just be a film thing... I don't spend much time in courts. – Catija Jun 2 '15 at 20:59
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    @saySay I hope you find that my additions answer your questions. I must tell you that you are dealing here with several very complex English language issues. I certainly don't know all the answers to them, and for some of them nobody has answers that all professional linguists agree on! :) Don't let me discourage you; you may be someone who will learn the language most easily through this sort of approach; but it is going to be very hard going, and you do not yet have the tools to express your questions clearly. . . . continued – StoneyB Jun 2 '15 at 21:02
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    So you may want to do some more reading on the site, and in particular look at those of your questions which I have rewritten to see how you might express yourself more idiomatically. Seem and may are not used in English quite the way you have been using them. – StoneyB Jun 2 '15 at 21:05
  • @Catija Yes, the ordinary 3pnsg pleases is a much more contemporary way of expressing the old formula. – StoneyB Jun 2 '15 at 21:06

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