Using “Please” Correctly in English

Posted on February 12, 2012

The word “please” is used slightly differently across languages and if you’re not careful it can have the opposite meaning to what  you intended.

I was bemused when, as a teacher in Japan, a university student came to me after class holding a textbook and said to me with a smile, “please make a copy”. The student was inadvertently giving me no option to refuse her request and projecting a real air of authority over me.

Be careful! “Please” with an imperative can very easily sound like an order with no option to refuse. If you are on the train where there are plenty of seats and you say to your friend “Please sit down”, your friend may feel offended. You appear to be presenting yourself as the director of the situation with your friend as the subordinate.

If you say “Please, sit down” to a guest in your company it sounds like a formal way to say “You’re welcome here, have a seat”. In this case, sitting down will be of more benefit to the addressee than to the speaker. Likewise, “please have a chocolate” will be of more benefit to the person being offered a chocolate than the giver who will have one fewer chocolate to enjoy.

If I want someone to do something for me, it is more polite to use a modal like “could” or “can” and make it into a question so that the person can choose whether to help you or not. If it’s a very hot day it’s best to say to your colleague “Please could you open the window?” In this situation, opening the window may have more benefit to the speaker rather than the addressee asked to do the favour. Perhaps they do not feel too hot. “Please open the window” presumes authority over the person and gives them an instruction which they have no choice over.

When people learn English at school they are often taught to say “Please repeat”. As a teacher, certainly addressing a group of children, this seems natural as the teacher has authority and is projecting this. Between adults it is much more polite to say “Please could you repeat that?” or, more casually, “Could you repeat that?” The teacher, as the authority figure in the classroom, may wish to say “please repeat” when giving instructions to the class but it sounds strange for a student to speak like this to a teacher, or for colleagues to speak like this to each other. Perhaps a director will say to a subordinate “please make a copy of this document” but there is a clear projection of authority in saying this and an implication of a very hierarchical working relationship.

On a sign, please and an instruction is natural and polite because there is no option to answer and be heard. So “Please take your shoes off here” or “Please keep off the grass” is fine. There are also some set phrases used in formal client facing situations like “please hold the line” or “please wait a moment” which are fine as imperatives as they do not require a response.

Out of office email replies don’t require a response and may contain a “please” imperative like, “I am out of the office until Thursday. If your query is urgent please contact my colleague Mr X in my absence, or I will reply to your email on my return”.

I often finish blog entries saying “Please let us know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter” because a blog is not a two-way conversation. I might ask a direct question such as “What are your thoughts?” as an invitation to comment, but not “Please could you let us know your thoughts?”

So, please let us know your thoughts!

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