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21
Mar 01
Wed

Moot Point of the Day

Was taking a leak when my mind went for a wander. It came to rest on school kids asking their teachers whether they could go to the toilet – in particular, the following exchange:

Student: [Waves hand in air] Can I go to the toilet?
Teacher: Yes. You can go to the toilet… but whether you may, is another matter.
Student: *Sigh*, OK, may I go to the toilet?
Teacher: No.

What is the difference between may and can? Let’s turn to the good ol’ Macquarie dictionary.

may: it is used to express: a. possibility, opportunity, or permission: You may enter

Fair enough – since asking a teacher about emptying your bladder is a request, may is used correctly. But…

can: to be able to; have the ability, power, right, knowledge, qualifications or means to: You can lift the box

Why does one ask the teacher? To be granted permission to leave for the toilet. Without permission, you have the ability and knowledge to take a leak, but you do not have the right or permission to do so. Thus, you can’t in fact go to the toilet because the totalitarian nature of school deems that the teacher must give you permission to physically move from your seat to the bathroom. Asking whether you can go is verifying whether you have the right to go off and piss. Thus, it is used correctly.

To put it succinctly, teachers who say “You can go to the toilet, but whether you may…” are ignorants spewing shit.

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