Making Polite Requests
Options to Commands
I’ve taught many speakers of other languages and other Englishes who were surprised to find out that what they thought sounded polite didn’t sound polite to American English listeners. I say “other Englishes” because there are differences between English speaking countries in what sounds polite based on the situation, the relationship of who is talking, and the intention of the speaker.
I put this list together to help distinguish between the different levels of politeness.
Phrases not used in American English (and can be interpreted as rude):
Kindly please do the needful
Thanking you in anticipation
Awaiting a positive response
Please help me a.s.a.p.
I need your help immediately
A polite command is still a command and not as polite as it could be:
Command = “Reply as soon as possible.”
Please + Command = “Please reply as soon as possible.”
Can vs May vs Could
American English - prefers “could” or “may” vs British English = prefers “can”
For Americans, technically, “can” = physically possible, “may” = permission
However, in most people’s casual speech, they don’t care about this difference.
Syntactic and Lexical forms of polite requests
(From: Pragmatics: Teaching Speech Acts, ISBN: 9781931185677)
Use indirect request strategies such as “can you give” rather than “give.”
Use lexis (different words) to soften the request:
The expression just (e.g., I just need…)
Word choice (e.g., be able to rather than can)
Empathetic markers (e.g., I realize how hard it is)
Interpersonal markers (e.g., I know)
Use syntax (sentence structure) to soften the request:
Past and continuous (e.g., I was hoping that/for…)
Modals (e.g., Could I…? Would you…?)
Embedding (e.g., I was wondering if…, Would it be alright if…)
Use preparatory moves, explanations, and offers:
Prerequisites (e.g, Can I talk to you for a minute?)
Reasons (e.g., My parents are flying down for the weekend.)
Offer (e.g., I’d be happy to work next weekend if that would help. How about if I tried...)
Asking a Favor
Less Formal to More Formal ⇩ (notice length of sentences)
Can I borrow your pencil?
Could you lend me a jacket?
Is it OK if I use your charger?
Do you mind if I use your phone?
Would it be OK if I picked it up on Friday night?
Would you mind if I borrowed your camera?
Would you mind letting me use your laptop?
I wonder if I could borrow some money.
I was wondering if you’d mind lending me your car.
Making Requests / Asking Permission
Making a request (to someone else) - Asking if THEY can do something
I wonder if you could ...?
I'd be grateful if you could ...
Could you possibly ...?
Do you think you could ...?
Asking for permission (for yourself) - Asking if YOU can do something
Would you mind if I ...?
I wonder if it might be possible to ...?
I wonder if I could ...?
Is it alright if I ...?
Giving Polite Replies
Yes, please do.
Sure, go ahead.
By all means.
Yes, of course.
Well, to be honest, it's a bit inconvenient.
I'm sorry but I'm a little busy right now.
That's not really possible. I'm afraid.
I'd rather you didn't, actually. (notice use of “actually” = softens)
I'm afraid. I can't at the moment.
“I'm afraid” can be used at the beginning or at the end.
(Below, From: Pragmatics: Teaching Speech Acts, ISBN: 9781931185677)