Grammar Wednesday

I know we’ve gone over some of these before, but this sign, in front of a local gifty-type shop, makes me think that a refresher course might not be a waste of time.


Stationary with an “a” means not moving, still, or fixed. The stationary pier was damaged by the unusually high tide.

Stationery with an “e” means writing paraphernalia – note cards, letterhead, and the like. If I could design my favorite stationery, it would be cream colored paper with tiny gold dragonflies in the top border.

(Just so you know, I went into the shop after I snapped the picture, and the lady behind the counter was actually grateful to me for pointing the error out. She said she thought that the sign didn’t look right, but she didn’t trust that her feelings were correct. Perhaps she’s a relative of yours, Kizz?)

How about a few more, just to round things out?

Adverse means hostile, unfavorable or harmful. The adverse weather conditions made the search and rescue mission particularly dangerous.

Averse means opposed to or disinclined. My students seem universally averse to homework.


Allude means to make an indirect reference. She alluded to her health problems, but I still don’t know what her diagnosis is.

Elude means to escape notice or detection. I can see the actor’s face in my mind, but his name continues to elude me.


THIS one is a huge problem in our house lately, and we’re not entirely sure why because, as early as a few months ago, the girls used these verbs correctly:

Can means to be capable of; it refers to an ability. She can play the flute, but she hasn’t learned to play the guitar.

May refers to permission. May I go to the movies with my friends on Thursday night?

Will is used to indicate acquiescence or willingness. Will you bring me the box from the top shelf of the closet, please?

Lately, the girls have been saying things like “May you please refill my water bottle.” We keep telling them, “MAY is permission, CAN is ability, WILL is willingness.” It’ll sink in at some point, I’m sure, but it hasn’t yet.

Remember that Grammar Wednesday topics are ALWAYS welcomed! Happy Wednesday, Everyone!



Filed under Grammar

17 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Suzanne

    My favorite along these lines is invasive/evasive. I once knew a women who referred to a particular plant as “evasive”. This brought to my mind an image of a plant skillfully “evading” being plucked from the ground as a weed.

    When I read your stationary/stationery example, another image came to mind of a store where half of the items stayed in one place, while the other half of the store’s stock moved about in a constant orbit. Only the non-moving half is on sale!

    What a difference a couple of letters make!

  2. I’m betting that the disconnect from the girls comes from positive reinforcement. We all start out using CAN for everything. We learn the use of MAY and get praised for it. Being fans of praise they’re probably just chucking it in everywhere and will now sort out the specific usage requirements.

    It’s not precisely grammar Wed material but I saw a funny sign on the way to work today. “Did you lose your keys? We found keys by our back door. Come in and ask at Sleepy’s?”

    Clearly written by an uptalker.

  3. Great lesson as usual!

    My 9th graders mix up may, can, and will too. “Can I go to the bathroom?” My response is always, “I don’t know. Can you?” Maybe not the most grammatical response I can give them but they give me that “drop dead” look so it’s worth it! 🙂

    I’d like to think that as 9th graders they have the ability and capablity to go to the bathroom. 🙂 They just need to realize they need to ask permission. The joys of working with high school students. 🙂

  4. M-Dawg, I have a friend (who teaches high school science) whose stock answer to that question is “I sincerely HOPE you can; if you can’t, you need to see a doctor right away…”

  5. I think that the can/may distinction, like who/whom, is not part of our natural language. I would think that the context makes it clear when you are asking permission and when you are inquiring about your ability.

    The American Heritage Book of English Usage says that the permissive “can” “is perfectly acceptable” in spoken English.

  6. hey, maybe they meant that there was a 25% off sale on all products that stand still. of course, i’m not sure how many of their products *don’t* stand still, so that might just be synonymous with a “25% off everything!” sale. 😛

    as for common mistakes in close words, affect/effect has always bugged me a lot, but i think you might have done that one not too long ago.

  7. Yeah, I have done affect/effect just recently. You know what, though, Lara? It is something that I see AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN in student writing, so it’s worth doing as often as possible:

    Affect is a verb that means “to influence.”
    My commute is negatively affected by the road construction on the highway between my house and the school.

    Effect is a noun that means “a result.”
    An effect of the damned construction is that I never arrive to work early enough to do some photocopying before class starts.

    The way *I* learned to remember the difference is to pretend that the first “E” in “effect” is the twin of the last “E” in “the.” Effect, being a noun, can take an article. Affect, as a verb, cannot.

    Does that help?

  8. More on can/may: use of “can” to express permission is rarely found in prose, except when negated. When permission is denied, “cannot” is used much more often than “may not”.

  9. John, I think permissive ‘can’ is fine as you say, but I’ve never thought of potentive¹ ‘may’ as grammatical, as in MrsChili’s example.

    Also, effect is also a verb meaning ‘to cause’.
    The Democrats have directly effected change.
    In googling for an example however, I found multitudes of pages from reputable websites, often government/media sites, using effect for affect.

    ¹I don’t know if such a word exists, but when in doubt, find a Latin or Greek root and add ‘ive’

  10. I agree, “May you please refill my water bottle” is ungrammatical. Maybe what I should have written was: when using “can,” I think that the context makes it clear when you are using the permissive or potentive meaning.

    otoh, isn’t “May you please refill my water bottle” (and “can you please refill my water bottle”) permissive? Is the child really asking if the adult is able to refill their water bottle, or are they asking for permission to refill their water bottle? Is this an example of the child generalizing the prescriptive rule, and using “may” for permission in every context?

  11. Isn’t “May you please refill my water bottle” (and “can you please refill my water bottle”) permissive?

    I don’t think so. I think it’s pragmatically impossible for the speaker to seek permission from the hearer and for the hearer, if you know what I mean.
    May he fill my water bottle? – Not great pragmatically, but acceptable as a real-world situation, but:
    May you fill my water bottle? – somehow this is a completely non-real-world scenario for me. It’s conceptually jarring. Not that that necessarily means it can’t be linguistically encoded (though this is undoubtedly the case in some languages, Wagiman, for instance), but it seems completely odd to me.

    Though, it’s not the case that asking the hearer if they are permitted to do something is impossible, Are you allowed to fill my water bottle? – is fine for me, perhaps it’s merely a quirk of the may modal. It has other quirks too, on reflection. It seems to be more and more restricted to first and second person, elsewhere can is used.
    ??May they go now?
    Can they go now?
    But the answer to this may (aha!) involve may:
    Yes, they may go now.

    Otherwise, there is irrealis may, as in ‘might’, except due to the semantics and event structure of it, it is impossible in interrogatives, though this is the same for all irrealis modals:
    I may/might buy a car
    *May/might I buy a car?
    Deontic irrealis if fine in interrogative though, funnily enough (though it’s possibly a bad use of the term ‘irrealis’):
    Should I buy a car?

    Anyway, back to permissive may, I think it’s gradually becoming fossilised into a certain distribution, one in which may I is fine but may you is not. Permissive can though, is fully productive, as is potentive can, but the permissive/potentive distinction is probably disappearing.

  12. To remember stationery: E as in envelope! That has stuck in my mind for over 20 years now, lol.

  13. Thank you for this lesson! I am looking forward to next week.

  14. Ooooh! MICHELLE! GOOD mnemonic! I’m TOTALLY swiping that!

  15. Anonymous

    are you all saying for example my daughter texted my friend and said “James may you ask my mother to make sure she mails my letters?”

  16. Anonymous

    September 21, 2010 at 10:58 am
    are you all saying for example my daughter texted my friend and said “James may you ask my mother to make sure she mails my letters?”

    i was not finish. are you saying that “may you” isn’t correct nor the polite way of asking someone a question or favor. Should she have said: “James can you ask my mother………

  17. Lilly

    Yes, anon, we are saying that would be incorrect grammar.

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