Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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:

  1. Who may I say is calling?
  2. 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.whos-calling

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11 Responses to “Who May I Ask Is Calling?”

  1. The Ridger said

    Umm. “What did you think I was doing?” sounds perfectly fine to me. Is that somehow different from “What did Tom wonder I was doing.” Well, as soon as I typed that I could see how. The “think” one isn’t reporting.

  2. Larry Sheldon said

    Is punctuation important?

    “Who, may I ask, is calling?

  3. Neal said

    Larry: In doing my searches, I’ve found that many, maybe even most, attestations of may I ask used in this way are not set off by commas, at least in unedited text like Google Blogs or Google Groups. Furthermore, if I see “Who, may I ask, is calling?” I don’t trust the commas. They could be there because the writer intends the phrase parenthetically, or because a later editor thought the writer intended it parenthetically, and made the correction.

  4. This subject gives me such nightmares! Wh-phrases and that whole maths-y syntax&semantics lark is so difficult to get your head around. But anyway, I was struck by this:

    1. Tom wondered what I was doing
    2. *What did Tom wonder I was doing?

    You’ve said that (2) is ungrammatical. Is it? It definitely sounds unusual, but I’m not quite sure if it qualifies as nonsense. Maybe ‘wonder’ (and ‘contemplate’) don’t work that well, but what about:

    3. Martin thought about what I was doing
    4. What did Martin think I was doing?

    Surely (4) is fine? I am hopeless as this field, but it just struck me that (2) doesn’t really seem like poor English. In which case, the debate over ‘Who may I ask is calling’ seems less contentious.

    Also, I’m not sure the ‘calling’ example is totally analagous to (1) anyway. Because in (1) the wh-phrase is traced back to an object (‘I was doing x’), whereas in the ‘calling’ example it’s a subject (‘x is calling’) Does that perhaps make raising more permissible? (Is this called A-movement?)

    In conclusion: I am so, so glad I don’t study this anymore. My brain hurts.

  5. Neal said

    2. is ungrammatical precisely because the main verb is wonder, and not think . Wonder needs a wh-clause right after it, but think takes a declarative clause. As for think about, that has to be followed by either a plain NP (e.g. thought about the proposal) or a wh-clause, as in 3. When it’s followed by a wh-clause, just like the sentence with wonder, you can’t move the wh-word to the front of the sentence: *What did Martin think about I was doing? (Of course, you can certainly say What did Martin think about what I was doing?, but now you’re not talking about the phrasal verb think about X anymore, but the transitive phrasal verb think X about Y.)

  6. goofy said

    Why is the form with “ask” ungrammatical and the form with “say” grammatical?

  7. Neal said

    Let me think of a different way to put it than I did in the post. Let’s say someone asks you, “Who may I say is calling?” and you answer “Goofy.” Then the asker of the question can conclude, “Ah. I may say Goofy is calling.”

    Now let’s suppose someone asks you, “Who may I ask is calling?” and you answer “Goofy.” The asker of the question can now conclude, “Ah. I may ask Goofy is calling.” Huh? What the heck does I may ask Goofy is calling mean?

  8. goofy said

    I don’t know. But I still don’t see why one is grammatical and the other isn’t. What is the syntactic difference between the two constructions?

    • Neal said

      The syntactic difference comes down to the fact that ask and wonder can take a question for their complement, but cannot take a declarative clause. That is, you can say ask/wonder {what to do, why he came, where the bathroom is, how they did it}, but you can’t say *ask/wonder {that Goofy is calling, that it’s raining, that the cat buried its food}. (You can say ask that you be on time and ask my name, but those aren’t relevant here. You can also say It’s a wonder that it’s raining, but there wonder is a noun, not a verb.) If you take a wh-word from the question that follows ask, and move it to the front of the sentence, now ask doesn’t have a question following it anymore.

      OTOH, say can take either a question or a declarative clause: say {what to do, why he came, where the bathroom is, how they did it, that Goofy is calling, that it’s raining, that the cat buried its food} is all OK. In Who may I say is calling?, the verb say is in its declarative-clause-taking incarnation, and the question is about what individual is the subject of that declarative clause: Tell me an X such that I may say that X is calling is true. If say is used in its question-taking incarnation, then you have to have the wh-word after the say, as in May I say who is calling? The main question here is a yes/no question: Do I have permission to state some information? And that information is the answer to the question “Who is calling?”

      And what if you use say in its question-taking incarnation and still try to steal the wh-word from under it and move it to the front of the sentence? You get Who may I say is calling?, but like magic, say has turned into its declarative-clause-taking incarnation. If there were no declarative-taking incarnation for it to turn into, we’d end up with something ungrammatical, like *Who may I ask/wonder is calling?. (Ungrammatical, that is, until some special-permission rule allows it into the grammar without regard to the usual rules.)

  9. goofy said

    Nicely explained, thanks.

  10. John Hill said

    How to check who is calling me? Whenever someone receives a call from a strange number, this question arises. If someone has been abusing its number to disturb you then it is your right to discover the identity of that person. Some governments provide the online resources in order to help the people to discover about the people who have been making their life hard. If you need to know how to check who is calling me then you may research on the Internet for finding any resource offered by the government.

    When you would research on the Internet to know how to check who is calling me then you would find two types of resources, public and private. The public resources would be offered by the government or law enforcing authorities of a country. Using the public resources is the best way to check the details of unknown caller. It is observed that the public resources are updated often which makes it probable to obtain accurate and latest information about a telephone number. That is why whenever someone asks me how to check who is calling me then I recommend him to use these public resources.

    Many of the private resources are unreliable but there are also some good private resources on the Internet. However, it needs some effort to discover a reliable private resource on the Internet. Before selecting a resource, you would have to research about that resource on the Internet. Usually you would find the comments of different people about a resource on the Internet. These people would mostly be the users of the resource and who could tell you better about a resource other than the user of a resource. If you think that the users of a resource are pleased by it then you can use it for you investigation.

    If you have been researching to check who is calling you then you should know that both public and private reliable resources are paid ones. There are also some free resources but there is no guarantee that the information obtained from these resources would be accurate. So, if you want to obtain correct information then you should not think about using the free resources. The online resources would cost you around $50 for buying the membership. After buying membership, you would be able to perform researches for a definite period. You may also plan to pay per research but it would be costly as compare to membership.

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