Who May I Ask Is Calling?
Posted by Neal on January 27, 2009
Enough of our light switches were making crackly noises when we flipped them that I decided it was time to call an electrician last Friday. I got their answering system, pressed 1 to make an appointment. I was then asked to press 1 for “Brian” if I was a residential customer, or 2 for someone else if I was a business customer. For a moment thought I was going to get to talk to someone in person, someone named Brian, when I pressed 1. It rang twice, and then went to more voice mail: “The person you are trying to reach is unavailable.” Well, shoot. And then, instead of asking me to press a button if I wanted to leave a message, the recorded voice asked:
Who may I ask is calling?
I had to hang up fast, to avoid leaving a recorded hangup as a message. I hate when I get those.
Once that moment of panic was past, I thought about the recorded voice’s question: Who may I ask is calling? Something about it wasn’t right. It was like a cross between two versions of the same basic question:
- Who may I say is calling?
- May I ask who’s calling?
Was Who may I ask is calling? a blend of the two? Then another possibility occurred to me. Maybe what I’d heard was this:
Who, may I ask, is calling?
In other words, just plain old Who is calling? with a parenthetical may I ask inserted, the same way as it’s been inserted in What, may I ask, is the meaning of this? and When, may I ask, do you intend to do your homework? I hadn’t heard intonational breaks before and after the may I ask, but maybe it’s such a common phrase that the distinctive intonation has been leveled.
Maybe I should back up. Why am I trying to find an explanation for this question? What is there to explain, anyway? What is so unusual about Who may I ask is calling??
Question formation turns out to be one of the trickier aspects of syntax, especially in languages that place their question words (commonly known as wh-words in English) in places other than where they’d go if they weren’t question words. For English, you need to make sure the rules can generate not just sentences like What did you buy?, but also What does he think you bought?, What do we want him to think you bought?, etc.
The rule is not as simple as saying the wh-word has to go at the beginning of the sentence. For instance, if there is more than one wh-word, it has to be determined which one goes to the front and which one stays in place. And when we say the wh-word is placed at the beginning of “the sentence,” what sentence do we mean? There’s no confusion when there’s only one subject and predicate we’re dealing with, in a sentence like What are you doing?. But in the sentence Tom wondered what I was doing, the what isn’t at the front of the sentence; it’s in the middle. The wh-word has to be at the front of the clause whose main verb is the one being asked about. In our last example, the speaker is not asking what Tom wondered. The speaker is telling what Tom wondered, and what follows wondered is the question. If we were to move the wh-word all the way to the front of this sentence, it would be nonsense: *What did Tom wonder I was doing.
If *What did Tom wonder I was doing is nonsense because the wh-word has been put in a clause where it doesn’t belong, then why isn’t Who may I ask is calling? nonsense, too? The who belongs to the clause headed by is calling, since that’s what is being asked about. Actually, maybe Who may I ask is calling? is nonsense to you. It’s nonsense to me if I try to parse it like an ordinary question. It makes sense only if I forget my usual rules of question syntax and jump straight to the pragmatics of the situation: The gatekeeper wants me to identify myself.
However, maybe this really is a new kind of question syntax in English for some speakers. It would be unlike any question syntax I know of from any other language, but it might be possible. To test out the possibility, I searched for syntactically similar constructions with other modals than may, and other pronouns than I, to get away from the may I ask idiom chunk. Searching for Who did he ask was calling and a few similar strings, I got absolutely zero hits with Google, and zero hits in the CoCA. So as I thought, this is most likely not some radical new English syntax. That leaves my original two hypotheses of syntactic blending, and intonational leveling of Who, may I ask, is calling? So what kind of evidence would favor one of these hypotheses over the other?
I’ll take a crack another crack at it in my next post, but in the meantime, here is a comparison of hits for Who may I say is calling?, May I ask who is calling?, and Who may I ask is calling? that I got when I searched Google Books. May I ask who is calling? also includes May I ask who’s calling?, and is by far the most popular, if what turns up in Google Books is representative of how people talk. Who may I say is calling? appeared in the 1940s, followed in the next decade by a single token of Who may I ask is calling?, and both phrasings have continued to grow, but run a distant second and third to May I ask who is calling? It’s suggestive that the possibly blended form Who may I ask is calling? only appeared after the putative source phrasings were in existence.