English Language Blog

Making Polite Requests in English Posted by on Apr 5, 2018 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary

Photo courtesy of Pixaby, CCO

Ask any parent, and they will tell you that there is one magic word in English: Please. The more often you say it in your daily life, the better your life will be. You will be regarded as polite, well mannered, poised, and mature. If you have the chance to say it in a job interview, and you likely will, your odds of getting that job will increase. It really doesn’t matter the circumstances, you will always advance your cause if people perceive you as a polite person.

Making a polite request, and responding accordingly, should be one of the first things you learn in English. It is one of the first lessons parents teach their children once they are old enough to speak. As basic as this is, however, it is surprising how many people do it poorly. Phrasing a request is something of a practiced art. There are nuances to consider, and sometimes one misplaced word can change the meaning of your request. This may sound odd since, after all, in most languages politeness doesn’t have layers and hidden meanings. But this is English, after all.

Let’s begin at the table, where so many are introduced to polite requests. You are seated among family, friends, and acquaintances. The salt shaker is at the far end of the table. It is polite enough to say, “Please pass the salt.” But, suppose the person nearest the salt is engaged in conversation with someone else. You should then say to another person, “Would you mind please passing the salt?” Or, “May I please have some salt?”

Notice that the last two sentences didn’t begin with the word please. To begin with please would imply some level of impatience or irritation, even desperation. “Please, would you mind passing the salt?” No matter how sweetly you say it, the request isn’t nearly so polite.

Also, please note the use of the words would and may. Many would substitute the word can, as in “Can I please have some salt?” Welcome to one of the great peculiarities of English. In standard English, can is a perfectly acceptable substitution for the word may. However, in formal situations, may is considered to be the proper and polite form of the request word. If there is any doubt about the propriety of a situation (and there often is), always use may over can.

Would is likewise preferred over the word could in making a request, since it expresses the concepts of probability and willingness. Could implies an ability to perform an action. Just because someone can do something does not mean that they will. “Could you please pass the salt?” When making a polite request, always use may or would.

The next question to consider is the placement of the word please. As we have seen, placing please at the beginning of a sentence is more of an imperative, and implies a command even if worded as a question.

“Please, would you sign this document?”

Placing please at the end of a sentence is still an imperative but conveys less of an immediacy on the request.

“Would you sign this document, please?”

Placing please in the middle of a sentence is more conversational and seems even less urgent.

“Would you please sign this document?”

Therefore, in most polite settings and conversations, please should come in the middle of a sentence, except in matters of most urgency.

So, if you would, please consider this the next time you make a request. And thank you.

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.