<may> I help you with some shoes, madam?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by fh3579, May 11, 2015.

  1. fh3579 Senior Member

    The following question is cited from a set of grammar exercise.
    —____I help you with some shoes, madam?

    —Yes, I would like to try on those brown ones.           

    A. Will   B. Should   C. May   D. Must
    The correct answer is C.
    What does "may" mean here? Is "should" accepatable here?
  2. boozer Senior Member

    It is difficult to explain exactly why one modal verb is preferred in over another in certain contexts, but one possible way of putting it is that 'may' here expresses a polite proposal while 'should' asks if the speaker has the moral obligation to show the customer any particular pair of shoes...
  3. Linkway Senior Member

    British English
    May I help you with some shoes, madam? :tick:

    The speaker used "may I" to ask for permission from the customer.

    It is the most usual/natural way of saying it in those circumstances; it is correct in every way.

    "Must I" would be downright rude even if it is grammatically acceptable.

    "Will I" means something different and invites a sarcastic reply such as, "I don't know, will you or won't you?"

    "Should I" is also grammatically correct but is not quite right; I think the customer would understand and not be annoyed, but strictly speaking, it does not ask for the customer's permission, and the sales person might simply be trying to remember what s/he was taught during training! :(

    EDIT: Boozer's comment about "moral obligation" is a good one.

    Similarly, a fire/rescue person might say, "There's a child choking inside that building, but should I risk going in without my breathing apparatus?"

    In that example, it is not moral obligation alone but a difficult decision, with reasons pulling both ways.

    "May I" (in your context) is SIMPLY and POLITELY asking for permission, especially as it will involve "invading" the customer's personal space.
    Last edited: May 11, 2015
  4. fh3579 Senior Member

    Thanks boozer and Linkway. Both comments are useful.
  5. DonnyB

    DonnyB Senior Member

    Coventry, UK
    English UK Southern Standard English
    It's perhaps worth pointing out that the form "May I...?" is increasingly reserved for very formal English nowadays (as evidenced by the "madam" at the end of that example).

    Most ordinary shoe shop assistants would say it as "Can I...?", although that wasn't one of the options listed in the exercise.
  6. fh3579 Senior Member

    Thanks very much, DonnyB. Now what a female customer is called by a shop assistant if madam is outdated?
  7. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    Typically, shop assistants don't use any form of address: To female and male customers alike, they ask, "Can I help you [...]?" No "sir", no "madam".
  8. fh3579 Senior Member

    Thanks very much, sound shift.
  9. Mahantongo

    Mahantongo Senior Member

    English (U.S.)
    Note that this applies to British English (as does the term "shop assistant".) Americans are much more formal in everyday conversation, and it is totally and completely normal and standard for anyone (and not just sales clerks, which is the term Americans use instead of "shop assistant") to address an unknown woman as "Miss" or "Ma'am" (rhymes with "ham"), or an unknown man as "Sir." It would also be entirely common in the US for anyone in a sales position (whether a saleswoman in an expensive shop, or the counter girl at a McDonald's) to say "May I help you?"
  10. fh3579 Senior Member

    To Mahantongo: Very detailed explanation. Thanks a lot.

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