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A friend of mine, who is local to Japan, noticed someone from abroad with a folding map who looked lost, and would like to know whether or not she could say "Can I help you?".

She had overheard the expression "Can I help you?" while inside stores, but she doesn't know whether it sounds natural for English speakers. Is it natural? Does it matter that she's not a staff member being paid to provide a service? If not, are there better alternatives?

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    Not only suitable; it is perfectly correct and acceptable. – Barranka Jan 29 '13 at 23:21
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Not only is it acceptable, it is also used quite frequently. You can also use other phrases such as "May I help you?", "Do you need help?", or "Would you like some help?". However, "Can I help you?" is probably used more often than other forms.

See Google Ngram Viewer: Can I help you, May I help you, Do you need help, Would you like some help:

Ngram

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    There's also "May I help you?" which runs a close second to "Can I help you?" Now, which of those two is more correct might be up for debate, but I doubt anyone would correct you either way. The polite response is simply to be thankful for the offer of assistance. – J.R. Jan 29 '13 at 16:40
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"Can I help you" is perfectly fine for an informal situation like this. Other phrases you may use include "Are you lost?", "Are you looking for something?".

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"Can I help you?" is a perfectly acceptable way to offer help to a person, for which the formal equivalent is "May I help you?" The latter is also politer way to offer help.

In my English classes, I was taught that can is used for capability, while may is used for permission. The difference doesn't seem to be perceived from all people, nowadays. A friend of mine (who is American) would use can also for asking about permission, offering help, or asking for help.
A native speaker would hardly understand questions similar to "Can I help you?" as asking about capability.

  • "Can" vs. "may" is probably a generational thing. While "may" is certainly more polite, "can" seems to be the more common form these days in this situation. In other situations, such as "Can you lift this box for me?", "may" would be inappropriate, since the person speaking is asking for help, not asking if someone else needs or would like some help. – barbara beeton Jan 29 '13 at 17:03
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    I struggled with can vs may in this context. Can I help you? could be construed to mean "Is there any way I am able to help you?" while May I help you? could be interpreted as "Would you permit me to try to assist you?" Thus, both words could be used, and neither question would suffer from the strict "you-should-have-used-the-other-word" syndrome, as happens when a child asks, "Can I go outside?" – J.R. Jan 29 '13 at 19:16
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It is natural and correct, BUT it does not sound completely natural when said by a stranger by itself.

"Can I help you" by itself is used more often when greeting somebody that walks into an establishment or when speaking to somebody you already know.

It literally can mean help in any way, so if the person was not lost for example, could interpret that as "nosy". ("No, leave me alone" type of reaction)

In the situation described, it would sound better to say:

"Hi, can I help you? Are you lost?"

"Hi, are you lost?"

"Are you lost? Can I help you?"

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