may not or mustn’t

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brian&me

Senior Member
Chinese - China
Hi, everyone.

The following is a test question.

--May I have a rest now?

--No, you ________.

A. may not B. mustn’t C. needn’t D. can’t

The answer key is B, but I think A is also OK.

What do you say?

Thanks a lot in advance.
 
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  • natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I think there is a mistake. The correct answer is A. D is possible too.

    (I assume the 'you' is missing from the response.)
     
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    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    I think B is possible, if D is. Here D ("cannot") really means B ("must not"). It would not make sense to say he is physically incapable of resting ("cannot"), but people often say "No, you cannot" when they really mean "No, you must not".

    A is "a litle more correct" because it matches the phrasing of the question (may ==> may not). But A, B, and D are all common replies to the question, and all mean the same.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    The only correct answer in BE is A. I say that because the test answer should be as artificial or as idiomatic as the question.

    The normal, idiomatic question is "Can I have a rest now?" to which the idiomatic answer is "No, you can't." If somebody is so 'correct' as to use "may" then the 'correct' answer must also use "may". Like all such questions it demands a single 'correct' answer, and in that situation "musn't" is 'wrong'.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    The only correct answer in BE is A. I say that because the test answer should be as artificial or as idiomatic as the question.

    The normal, idiomatic question is "Can I have a rest now?" to which the idiomatic answer is "No, you can't." If somebody is so 'correct' as to use "may" then the 'correct' answer must also use "may". Like all such questions it demands a single 'correct' answer, and in that situation "musn't" is 'wrong'.
    I agree with this in terms of the "test" - but in real life my answer there would be "can't".
    Lots of people have given up the distinction between "may I" and "can I" when asking for permission for something mundane. I seem to remember it being an issue when I was a kid, 50 years ago, but rarely hear parents quibbling over it these days.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    Boy: Sir, sir! Can I go the toilet?
    Teacher: Yes.
    Teacher: Where are you going, boy?
    Boy: To the toilet. You said I could.
    Teacher: Sit down. I said you can, not that you may.

    You wouldn't hear that in a school these days. :D
     

    brian&me

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Thanks, everyone.

    What about the following question?
    --May I smoke here?
    --No, you______.
    I wonder if I could fill in the blank with may not, can't, mustn't or all of them.

    Thanks again.
     

    Vronsky

    Senior Member
    Russian - Russia
    Thanks, everyone.

    What about the following question?
    --May I smoke here?
    --No, you______.
    I wonder if I could fill in the blank with may not, can't, mustn't or all of them.

    Thanks again.
    You can use mustn't to say that something is not allowed or forbidden.

    You mustn't smoke here.
    That means smoking is forbidden; it's against the rules to smoke here.

    Must expresses the idea that you don't have a choice. Mustn't with this meaning is similar to can't.
    (from How to Use 'Must' – Modal Verbs Video Lesson)
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    May I have a rest now?
    This question is asking permission (Am I allowed to...?).

    'A. may not' means 'You are not allowed to do so (you do not have permission)'.
    'B. mustn’t' means 'It is necessary or compulsory that you do not do so' (in this case, permission does not come into it: no one is allowed, or able, to give permission).
    'C. needn’t' means 'You are not required to do so (nothing is compelling you to rest)'.
    'D. can’t' means in this context 'It is not physically possible for you to do so (you may try, but you will not succeed)'.

    I think it is good to maintain these distinctions.
    How do we know that 'can't' in this context only refers to physical possibility? Because it is contrasted with 'may not'.
    How do we know that 'mustn't' in this case is not about permission? Again, because it is contrasted with 'may not'.
     
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    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    What about the following question?
    ...
    I wonder if I could fill in the blank with may not, can't, mustn't or all of them.
    It is exactly the same as the original question. Is this a test question, or is it real life? If it is a test question the 'correct' answer is "may not". In real life - English as spoken - the differences in meaning have been to some degree lost.
    I think it is good to maintain these distinctions.
    I agree, but the chances of winning the losing battle of doing so are about as good as those of the Académie Française or the Office Québécois de la Langue Française keeping English words out of French.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Good English makes good writing and gives it a greater reach and a longer potential life than the alternative.
    The wider the use of English spreads in the world, the greater becomes the power of good English.
     
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    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    Very often it isn't a distinction worth making. I honestly think most of it was about adults being snarky with kids about a pedantic difference involving actions where no real variation exists, such as going to the loo or getting down from the table. Were those dreary adults living in a world where these things were literally impossible? Where the people cannot urinate or use a chair? Why did they insist on suggesting that anything other than asking permission was intended by the questions? Dreary pedantry.

    It's a useful distinction where real challenge is involved, for instance in a discussion about swimming the Channel. Or where law-breaking might be involved in financial regulations. But other wise: dreary adults being petty is not something I'd want to encourage.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Were those dreary adults living in a world where these things were literally impossible? Where the people cannot urinate or use a chair?
    Apparently those adults were insisting the child must use 'can' instead of 'may', which seems an unlikely scenario.

    Dropping these distinctions reduces the potential of the language.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    The adult in post #8 was insisting on "may" rather than "can". I don't think I've ever read or heard somebody saying that a child should use "can" in preference to "may". I never thought my father was being dreary when he pointed out the difference between "may I" and "can I" or "you may" and "you can". Like wandle, I think it is a useful distinction. Teachers being 'snarky' was in my father's schooldays, not mine.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    The adult in post #8 was insisting on "may" rather than "can".
    But if so, that adult was not living in a world 'where these things were literally impossible' (where the people cannot urinate or use a chair).
    Were those dreary adults living in a world where these things were literally impossible? Where the people cannot urinate or use a chair?
    That world is one where there is no question of permission.

    Adults who take the traditional line by insisting on 'may' are those who believe that going to the toilet or leaving the table are matters subject to permission.
     
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    siares

    Senior Member
    Slovak
    I think it is a useful distinction.
    Is the divide between can-could/will-would ever pointed out? I've not seen that.

    - Can you help me?
    - Yes.
    - Splendid!
    - Not really, anyone could. Good luck finding someone who would / will, cheerio!
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    Is the divide between can-could/will-would ever pointed out? I've not seen that.

    - Can you help me?
    - Yes.
    - Splendid!
    - Not really, anyone could. Good luck finding someone who would / will, cheerio!
    I would only expect to hear that as a joke. Or this one, where "can I" (may I/is it possible for me) is taken to mean "am I capable of":

    Dozy-looking shop assistant: Can I help you, madam?
    Supercilious customer: I doubt it.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    But if so, that adult was not living in a world 'where these things were literally impossible' (where the people cannot urinate or use a chair).
    I don't understand the point you are trying to make. Some adults used to insist that a request for permission must use 'may', not the normal and colloquial 'can'. There was no doubt over capability.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Some adults used to insist that a request for permission must use 'may', not the normal and colloquial 'can'.
    That is a comment on parents' rearing of children.
    My comment was on suzi br's sentence.
     
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    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    I don't understand the point you are trying to make. Some adults used to insist that a request for permission must use 'may', not the normal and colloquial 'can'. There was no doubt over capability.
    That is exactly my point. There was never any doubt about the pragmatics of the question, so it was a pointless quibble, in my view.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    There was no doubt over capability.
    There was never any doubt about the pragmatics of the question,
    Sorry if my comment seemed to be a quibble. The purpose, I confess, was partly humour, but also to make a logical point for the sake of learners.
    Were those dreary adults living in a world where these things were literally impossible?
    Let me put it as a question. If the adult says to the child, 'You should say 'May I ...?' when you want to leave the table', in what way does that imply that the adult thinks leaving the table is literally impossible?
     
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    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    Sorry if my comment seemed to be a quibble. The purpose, I confess, was partly humour, but also to make a logical point for the sake of learners.

    Let me put it as a question. If the adult says to the child, 'You should say 'May I ...?' when you want to leave the table', in what way does that imply that the adult thinks leaving the table is literally impossible?
    This is the dialogue I have heard in my youth:
    Kid - Can I leave the table?
    Adult - Yes
    Kid gets down
    Adult - Where are you going?
    Kid - You said I could leave the table.
    Adult - I said you CAN but I didn't give you permission. (You should say May I ...)

    So my point is that Kid at turn #1 is obviously asking for permission - there is no other pragmatic reason to ask this question. So, the adult niggling over the idea that CAN is only for "able to" seems to be living in a world where a kid would ask about the possibility of leaving the table. Which the kid would never need to do. Obviously the adult was being pedantic and annoyed me everytime I heard it. It didn't ever seem to "teach" me anything apart from how ridiculous adults can be.
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    I hope my attempt at humorous use of logic has not led anyone into equating the then and the now.
     
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