When we interact with others, we are involved in four major exchanges: making statements, asking for
information, offering something, or demanding something. The grammar for these exchanges is ‘played with’ for a range of purposes, such as asserting power, being sarcastic or being polite.
In this short article, we explore how grammar is used for being polite.
Being polite with direct commands
To be polite with direct commands, we are restricted in what we can use:
- Please don’t do that.
- Don’t do that, please.
- Kindly take your trays to the counter.
Being polite with indirect commands
It’s because commands demand time or energy or money to be ‘invested’ by the person being commanded, that it is a speech function that is very sensitive to the context. And, in English, it is typical that the grammar is exploited, whether it is to be polite or threatening or sarcastic. A lot of this interpersonal work can be done by making the grammar typical of a statement and then loading the front of the clause complex.
- You should hand in your assignments to me by Friday.
- I would like you to hand in your assignments to me by Friday.
- It would be in your best interests if you were able to hand in your assignments to me by Friday.
Research has shown that the more polite we want to be in formal English contexts, the more work we do at the front!