Cambridge Dictionaries online Cambridge Dictionaries online

The most popular online dictionary and thesaurus for learners of English

  

Politeness

Politeness is about keeping good relations with your listener or reader. There are two types of politeness

  1. – showing the listener or reader that you value and respect them.

  2. – 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.

Not: 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]

A:

Here’s your credit card, Mr Watts. Have a safe trip.

B:

Thank you.

[at a restaurant]

Shall I take your coat, Madam?

[emailing a professor that you dont know]

Dear Prof. Kinsella …

Not: Hi John

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.

Compare

softer

more direct

It’s kind of cold in here, isn’t it? Could we close the window?

It’s cold in here. Let’s close the window.

Could you just turn the radio down a little, please?

Turn down the radio. (The imperative is very direct when used in requests.)

Your playing could possibly be improved.

[giving someone criticism on their musical performance]

You may need to spend more time working a little bit on the rhythm.

You must improve your playing. You need to spend more time working on the rhythm.

Vague language

We use vague language to make times and quantities sound less direct and more approximate:

A:

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.)

A:

What colour is your dress?

B:

It’s kind of green and brown, with a few gold buttons on the front.

Modal expressions

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?

A:

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:

A:

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.)

Warning:

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:

Assistant:

What was the name please?

Customer:

Perry, P-E-R-R-Y.

Assistant:

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.

Two-step questions

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:

A:

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:

A:

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.

Using names

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

Not: 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. Need grammar practice? Try English Grammar Today with Workbook.)

Word of the Day

drizzle

to pour liquid slowly over something, especially in a thin line or in small drops

Word of the Day

Blog

Read our blog about how the English language behaves.

Learn More

New Words

Find words and meanings that have just started to be used in English, and let us know what you think of them.

Learn More