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Show Me the Manual!

Mary wrote recently to ask whether "May you" is correct, as in "May you please get me a piece of paper?" Mary’s daughter’s teacher insists the children say "May you please" rather than "May I please have."

Michael wrote today encouraging (almost haranguing) me to tell readers they must not begin a sentence with a conjunction. Apparently he believes a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence is a dose of poison to the English language.

To Michael and to Mary’s daughter’s teacher I say:

Show me the manual!

Who besides that teacher believes "May you" is correct and "May I" is wrong? Who besides Michael believes conjunctions such as and and but are wrong at the beginning of a sentence in standard business writing?

Show me the manual. Where are the highly regarded style guides that support their positions? The Chicago Manual of Style? The Gregg Reference Manual? Garner’s Modern American Usage? The Associated Press Stylebook? The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications? Which ones?

I know Michael, who referred to himself as "DR," had strong feelings about his view. He used all-capital letters for these words in his message: MORE, NEVER, WANT, PROPERLY, PLEASE, DEATH ("of entire languages"), ESSENTIAL, NOT, CORRECT, CANNOT, START. But passion is not enough. (There! I had the nerve to start a sentence with a conjunction when talking about him.) One also has to have business language experts on one’s side.

In the movie Jerry Maguire, the athlete played by Cuba Gooding Jr. shouts "Show me the money!" He won’t regain faith in Jerry, his agent, unless he has evidence of the money coming in.

I say, "Show me the manual!" and I hope you will too. Do not take people’s strongly felt positions about language on faith. And let’s not let them boss us around on our language playground unless they have true authority to do so.

Yes, I just started another sentence with a conjunction. Do you feel the language dying? No, neither do I.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Show Me the Manual!”

  • that is weird. my daughter – who is 5 – does the same thing. she didn’t get it at preschool or at home. i didn’t know adults also said this!

  • May can only be used in a polite request if it is followed by I, first person. For example “May I borrow your pen”?

  • Victoria, “may” is also used correctly with other subjects. For example:
    –May Crista borrow the car?
    –May we eat outside?
    –May he have your phone number?

  • Partson, I believe you are asking whether “May you please” is correct. It is not correct in American English. Try one of these instead:

    “Would you please send me the report?” (a request)

    “Would you please send me the report.” (less a request, more a directive)

    “May I please have the report?” (a request)

    I hope I have answered your question.


  • Ok, now I’m even more confused. I have an associate that uses the phrase “may you” instead of “could you” or “would you”, which just seems wrong. It appears though that you are endorsing her phraseology, which consists of requests like this:

    “May you send me a copy of your specifications?”
    “May you prepare a quotation for Joe and copy me on it when sent?”
    “May you call me when you get a chance?”

    Those just seem gratingly obvious as incorrect and fundamentally wrong, but it appears from your column you are suggesting that “may you” can be used interchangeably with “can you”, “would you”, or “will you” in a request to another party.

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