Grammar question

  1. Please may I have the napkin?
  2. May please I have the napkin?
  3. May I please have the napkin?
  4. May I have please the napkin?
  5. May I have the please napkin?
  6. May I have the napkin please?
    There are six possible ways to place the “please” in the question above. #1, #3, and #6 make grammatical sense. In fact, they mean precisely the same thing and convey the exact same information.

#4 is ok, but sounds stilted.

#2 and #5 are completely unacceptable ways to ask the question (unless, for instance, the napkin has the word “please” on it, in which case you could use #5 but the meaning would be quite different from the rest).

So the questions I have are why is it acceptable or what purpose does it serve to have 3 ways of saying exactly the same thing using exactly the same words? And given that you can combine it appropriately 3 different ways, why is it inappropriate to ask the question in the other 3 ways?

The most important thing here is that language doesn’t follow the rules of logic and it’s very flexible

Why are there 3 different ways of saying the same thing with the same words? Because there are. It’s really that simple; no justification is needed. The important thing is to have a way to convey the proper meaning. If there is is more than one way to do that, it’s all good!

The “purpose” it serves is allowing a maximum number of individuals to be able to express what they want to express without being unable to communicate something because they got the structure incorrect.

Indeed, one of the reasons English is so universal is its lack of structure. This makes it very difficult to learn the “proper” way to say something but easy to learn a way to get your point across.

Note that languages like English which (in the US, at least) have only voluntary bodies trying to codify usage don’t have “purpose” as a directional driver in how the masses effect usage evolution. The polloi simply do their best, and the language evolves until what was once substandard becomes standard.

The masses don’t always get it right, of course.
Play with the position of “only” in “I only have eyes for you” to see what I mean.

Well, I think there are two elements to this. The first is the tentative ‘rules of the English language’. There is some logic to it, but as has been said above, it’s far from consistent. There have been various valiant attempts at describing English grammar (see generative grammar, but there are ultimately problems with this kind of analysis. The second element is convention.

However, I think we can safely say that in the above examples, ‘please’ acts as an adverbial element, and adverbial elements can be moved. Consider phrases such as ‘I will wait patiently’, you can equally render it as 'Patiently, I will wait, or ‘I will patiently wait’.

In 2 and 4, ‘please’ is breaking up essential elements of the sentence structure (in a generative approach you’d probably argue it’s interfering with the deep structure, but I won’t go into that here).

In 5, ‘please’ appears to be behaving like an adjective for ‘napkin’. (what is a ‘please napkin’?) So it is unacceptable here.

But really, the reason is convention (which would be a point in favour of a construction grammar approach). ‘Please’ only behaves in those environments because of how language users use language, and because we’ve been hearing people use it (and not use it) in this way all our lives.

In #1, “Please” should be followed by either a colon or a hyphen. I suspect the hyphen would not be acceptable in formal writing, but as a colloquial expression.
It serves as an introductory remark, not an integral part of the request.

Cite: being raised in the 50’s by an old-school English Teacher From Hell.

Revenge was gotten later, when I corrected her grammar and diction.

Good lord, don’t introduce “only” into the discussion - we’ll be here until doomsday…

Stick with affect/effect - there is still a chance of rescuing those.

That/which was lost years ago.

As/like is probably too far gone.

Absolutely not. A comma, maybe. A colon or hyphen would be eccentric in the extreme. You’d have to do way more work than any reasonable person would do to find even one example of such a usage.

BTW, I consider it to be a rule that anything taught by an old-school English teacher was wrong, or least an oversimplified absolute so that they didn’t have to teach nuances or choices. But I’m going to come to your English teacher’s defense here. No such thing was ever said; you misheard or are misremembering.

I’m just going to offer this, and then you can run with it or drop it:

If #1, #3 and #6 were punctuated properly and then read aloud, is in a play, the different placings of “please” could indicate different emphasis/pauses for breath. You theatre majors can clarify this better, I am sure. #4 is only good for Yoda.

Thanks so far to everyone’s responses. It’s interesting. Feel free to add more.

To answer a few people’s comments, I specifically didn’t put punctuation marks like commas into various questions because I wanted them all to line up on the page. Sure, #1 needs it. But it doesn’t change the overall structure or meaning to not have it, so I didn’t put it in.

Fake Tales of San Francisco, I asked this question to my wife last night and she started in with deep structure before rambling on about Chomsky until I lost interest and decided to ask the question here :slight_smile:

A hyphen would not be acceptable in any kind of writing (other than wrong writing).

A dash, on the other hand, might be.

There is a major difference between the two, and those who don’t know this piss me off.

My, but you are easily annoyed, aren’t you?

What happens when someone confuses a colon and a semi-colon?

Really? Do you go offboard here to find a source for a proper dash? I don’t. I always use a hyphen, because using an actual em-dash or en-dash is sheer lunacy in this context.

There are three choices, not two, and anybody pretentious enough to insist upon a distinction in casual writing really should know that.

In non-casual writing you also have choices: you can find out what your copyeditor requires and use that or you can use anything at all, including a hyphen, and let the people paid to care at the other end do the work. Both are perfectly proper, BTW.

I’m not sure what part of speech “please” is considered to be, but if you replace each instance with “if it pleases you” the results are the same (1,3,6 OK; 4 stilted; 2,5 wrong). “If it pleases you” is an adverbial clause and is allowed, I think, where a simple adverb would be allowed. (Though with some adverbs the subjective stiltedness of #3 and #4 reverses.)

The word “please” is an adverb. The rules for adverb placement in English are complicated, but in many cases they can be placed either before or after the verb:

He slowly walked to school.

He walked to school slowly.

Generally, when an adverb comes after a verb, it must come after the object:

He ate lunch quickly

- not -

He ate quickly lunch.

This covers cases 3, 4 and 6. In case 5 the adverb “please” is in the middle of a noun phrase, which isn’t the proper place to modify the verb “have.”

When an adverb precedes the verb, it generally comes immediately before it - the subject cannot come between them:

He always arrives late.

- not -

Always he arrives late.

This covers case 2.

I believe that in case 1, “please” is a disjunct - an adverb that modifies an entire clause or sentence by indicating the mood of the speaker or writer toward what is being modified.

Your wife sounds hot. ::Sorry, just had to. What Internet rule is that again?::

They end up with a poorly written sentence.

If that doesn’t trouble you, that’s fine. But it does trouble me, and I feel no need to apologize for this.

I’m not sure what you mean by “offboard” and “find a source.” Can you explain further?

I hope you’ll also explain why using a proper punctuation mark in any context is “sheer lunacy.” And while you’re add it, why creating ambiguity by using one in place of another is a good thing.

I’m very aware of the distinction between and uses of the hyphen, en-dash and em-dash.

Funny that you seem to accuse me of being too pedantic in distinguishing between a hyphen and a dash, but not pedantic enough because I didn’t explain that there are two kinds of dashes (only one of which would be of use in the sentence in question).

Copy editing happens to be my profession, but even if I weren’t “paid to care” about these matters, I would care just the same.

Sure, you can “use anything at all” if you don’t care. But it is never wrong, under any circumstances, to use the correct punctuation, or to point out that a hyphen and a dash are two different punctuation marks — which is what I did in my post.

Just for shits and grins, can you point me to some examples of “non-casual” writing in which a hyphen is used for its proper purpose and ALSO in place of a dash?

Hmmm…this must be why several style guides I did a quick-and-dirty consult with just now explain the proper uses of each mark, but say nothing about it being OK to freely substitute one for the other.

Don’t worry; it’s only me. :wink: I’ll keep this side discussion about other grammar niceties between you and I ( :wink: , again )without sucking in DChord568 or other grammatical Quixotians.

Go polloi! (Unless it’s one of the bugs up my behind, in which case I refer you to my User Name).

I agree – understanding the origins of “please” as a phrase is the key to the technically “most correct” usage. OTOH, English has always been an evolving language with many anomalies and contradictions in grammar and spelling so “most correct” is also determined by common usage, as someone already said.

Fortunately, several of the constructs meet both criteria; I myself would consider #3 and #6 both correct from both standpoints, with #6 preferred – the structure of the implied “May I have the napkin, if it pleases you?” being simpler and less convoluted than “May I, if it pleases you, have the napkin?”).

In my experience the most common usage would be #6 (“May I have the napkin please?”) which to my ear is both more straightforward and lacks the mildly plaintive tone of “May I pleeeaaaase have the napkin?” There is also the unstated and more formal #7, “You wanna throw me that napkin?”, usually used only when dining with the Queen.

When anyone here is typing into a message box, an en-dash or em-dash is not a keystroke. Only a hyphen is. So that’s what everybody uses. There may be a key combination for them which I don’t know or else you could go into Word or some program not here on the Board and copy and paste a proper dash. Nobody does this. I don’t. You don’t. Nobody does. This is casual writing, as is 90% of all writing. Hyphens are perfectly proper here. I did not say at any time at all that they were proper in final formal printed copy. But of course I was referring to manuscript typing, not to final text, a wholly different thing.

I’ve been a professional writer probably longer than you’ve been a copyeditor and the two professions are professionally scornful of one another. Writers think of copyeditors are stereotypically pedantic, anal, and illiterate. We know that’s not true but it sure feels like it at times. Particularly now, when one of them so spectacularly misreads a sentence and makes a comment from Mars about it. [Hint: Look back at my quote and try to figure out what two things I was comparing.]