Politeness is about keeping good relations with your listener or reader. There are two types of politeness
– showing the listener or reader that you value and respect them.
– changing or softening what you say so as not to be too direct or forceful.
Politeness: showing respect
There are many ways in which we can show that we value and respect our listener or reader. In more formal situations, we are especially careful to use certain polite phrases:
[addressing an audience]
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr Patrick Murphy …
[a waiter in a restaurant]
May I take your plate, sir?
[a message in a thank-you card]
Thank you for your wonderful gift.
[asking a stranger for directions]
Excuse me, I’m looking for Cathedral Street.
Where’s Cathedral Street?
In formal contexts when we don’t know people and we want to show respect, we use titles such as Mr + family name, Ms + family name, sir, madam, doctor (Dr), professor (Prof.):
[checking out at a hotel reception desk]
Here’s your credit card, Mr Watts. Have a safe trip.B:
[at a restaurant]
Shall I take your coat, Madam?
[emailing a professor that you dont know]
Dear Prof. Kinsella …
Politeness: making what we say less direct
When we speak and write, we usually try not to be too direct. There are a number of ways in which we can do this.
Softening words (hedges)
We can use softening words or hedges to make what we say softer.
[giving someone criticism on their musical performance]
We use vague language to make times and quantities sound less direct and more approximate:
Are you coming for dinner tomorrow night?B:
Absolutely. What time is best for you?A:
Any time around eight would be perfect.
It’s about seven o’clock so I think we should be leaving soon. (less direct than It’s seven o’clock so we should be leaving now.)
What colour is your dress?B:
It’s kind of green and brown, with a few gold buttons on the front.
We can use certain modal verbs, especially the past forms of the modal verbs can, may, shall and will (could, might, should and would), to be more polite or less direct. We can also use other modal expressions (certainly, possibility, be likely to, be supposed to be). We often do this when we ask for something or ask someone to do something:
Might I ask if you are related to Mrs Bowdon? (rather formal and more polite/less direct than May I ask …?)
Would you follow me, please, sir? (more polite/less direct than Will you follow me …?)
Would you mind moving your car, please?
Could you take a look at my laptop? It’s taking so long to start up.B:
Well I’ll certainly take a look. Is there a possibility that it might have a virus?A:
Well, the anti-virus is supposed to be up to date.
You are likely to feel stressed before your exam. (less direct than You will feel stressed before your exam.)
Changing tenses and verb forms
Sometimes we use a past verb form when we refer to present time, in order to be more polite or less direct. We often do this with verbs such as hope, think, want and wonder. The verb may be in the past simple, or, for extra politeness, in the past continuous:
Where’s the key to the back door?B:
I was hoping you had it. (less direct than I hope you have it.)
I thought you might want to rest for a while since it’s been a long day.
I wanted to ask you a question.
I am having problems with my internet connection and I was just wondering if you could tell me how to fix it. (less direct and forceful than I have a problem with my internet connection and I wonder if you could tell me how to fix it.)
In formal contexts, we sometimes use past forms in questions, invitations and requests in the present so as to sound more polite:
Did you want another coffee?
I thought you might like some help.
We were rather hoping that you would stay with us.
In shops and other service situations, servers often use past verb forms to be polite:
What was the name please?Customer:
Did you need any help, madam?Customer:
No, thanks. I’m just looking.
If and politeness
In speaking, we often use if followed by will, would, can or could to introduce a polite request:
If we can move on to the next point for discussion. (more polite than Can we move on …)
If I could just say one more thing … (more polite than Listen to me, I want to say something.)
If you will follow me, please. (more polite than Follow me, please.)
We use other expressions with if to express politeness: if you don’t mind, if it’s OK with you, if I may say so, if it’ll help:
If you don’t mind, I think I need that cup of tea.
I’ll stay here, if it’s OK with you.
In speaking, we sometimes ask two questions rather than one so as to be less direct. The first question is an introduction for the listener and the second one asks a more specific question:
Do you like sport? I mean, do you play sport?B:
Yeah. I play basketball. I’m on the school team.
The first question introduces the topic of sport; the second one asks a more specific question about it. The listener answers the second question.
We sometimes use yes-no questions one after the other:
Is this your pen?B:
Yes, that’s mine.A:
Do you mind if I borrow it for a minute?B:
Not at all.
This is less direct than asking Can I borrow this pen? as a question on its own.
We can make what we say more polite and less direct by using a person’s name:
What’s the time, John? (less direct than What’s the time?)
I’m not sure I agree with you, Liam. (less direct than I’m not sure I agree with you.)
Politeness: what is impolite?
Being direct is impolite so we need to be careful when using direct forms.
The imperative form
In most contexts, the imperative is very direct and is usually impolite when used outside of family and friends:
[in a café]
Give me a coffee.
Polite form: Could I have a coffee, please?
[asking the time]
Tell me the time.
Polite form: Would you mind telling me the time, please?
However, it is acceptable to use an imperative in warnings, offers, written requests and when giving directions or instructions:
Mind your step!
Have another coffee.
Turn left once you get past the cinema. Then take a right along a narrow road …
To stop in an emergency, press this button.
Using titles inappropriately
We use titles before names, for example Mr Oakley, Dr Morrison:
[in a letter or email to Professor Harry Murray]
Polite form: title + family name: Dear Prof. Murray
Dear Prof. Harry
Using very familiar terms of address inappropriately
When people know each other very well, for example, couples or very close friends, parents and their children, they may address each other using terms such as love, honey, darling, pet. In certain dialects, you may also hear people use these terms in shops and cafés, for example. It is impolite to use these terms in formal contexts:
[in an interview]
Where do you come from, love?
[in a restaurant]
Mr Kane, pet, your table is ready.
(“Politeness” from English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
- Adjectives and adverbs
Easily confused words
- Above or over?
- Across, over or through?
- Advice or advise?
- Affect or effect?
- All or every?
- All or whole?
- Allow, permit or let?
- Almost or nearly?
- Alone, lonely, or lonesome?
- Along or alongside?
- Already, still or yet?
- Also, as well or too?
- Alternate(ly), alternative(ly)
- Although or though?
- Altogether or all together?
- Amount of, number of or quantity of?
- Any more or anymore?
- Anyone, anybody or anything?
- Apart from or except for?
- Arise or rise?
- Around or round?
- Arouse or rouse?
- As or like?
- As, because or since?
- As, when or while?
- Been or gone?
- Begin or start?
- Beside or besides?
- Between or among?
- Born or borne?
- Bring, take and fetch
- Can, could or may?
- Classic or classical?
- Come or go?
- Consider or regard?
- Consist, comprise or compose?
- Content or contents?
- Different from, different to or different than?
- Do or make?
- Down, downwards or downward?
- During or for?
- Each or every?
- East or eastern; north or northern?
- Economic or economical?
- Efficient or effective?
- Elder, eldest or older, oldest?
- End or finish?
- Especially or specially?
- Every one or everyone?
- Except or except for?
- Expect, hope or wait?
- Experience or experiment?
- Fall or fall down?
- Far or a long way?
- Farther, farthest or further, furthest?
- Fast, quick or quickly?
- Fell or felt?
- Female or feminine; male or masculine?
- Finally, at last, lastly or in the end?
- First, firstly or at first?
- Fit or suit?
- Following or the following?
- For or since?
- Forget or leave?
- Full or filled?
- Fun or funny?
- Get or go?
- Grateful or thankful?
- Hear or listen (to)?
- High or tall?
- Historic or historical?
- House or home?
- How is …? or What is … like?
- If or when?
- If or whether?
- Ill or sick?
- Imply or infer?
- In the way or on the way?
- It’s or its?
- Late or lately?
- Lay or lie?
- Lend or borrow?
- Less or fewer?
- Look at, see or watch?
- Low or short?
- Man, mankind or people?
- Maybe or may be?
- Maybe or perhaps?
- Nearest or next?
- Never or not … ever?
- Nice or sympathetic?
- No doubt or without doubt?
- No or not?
- Nowadays, these days or today?
- Open or opened?
- Opportunity or possibility?
- Opposite or in front of?
- Other, others, the other or another?
- Out or out of?
- Permit or permission?
- Person, persons or people?
- Pick or pick up?
- Play or game?
- Politics, political, politician or policy?
- Price or prize?
- Principal or principle?
- Quiet or quite?
- Raise or rise?
- Remember or remind?
- Right or rightly?
- Rob or steal?
- Say or tell?
- So that or in order that?
- Sometimes or sometime?
- Sound or noise?
- Speak or talk?
- Such or so?
- There, their or they’re?
- Towards or toward?
- Wait or wait for?
- Wake, wake up or awaken?
- Worth or worthwhile?
- Nouns, pronouns and determiners
Prepositions and particles
- Among and amongst
- At, in and to (movement)
- At, on and in (place)
- At, on and in (time)
- Beneath: meaning and use
- By + myself etc.
- For + -ing
- In front of
- In spite of and despite
- In, into
- Near and near to
- On, onto
- Prepositional phrases
- Words, sentences and clauses
- discourse markers
- emphasising and downtoning
- people and places
- types of English (formal, informal, etc.)
- useful phrases
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