There are many ways to form an appropriate request in English depending on the context. First, look at the following examples of requests. Can you guess which ones are very indirect, and which ones are more direct?
a. Let me see your notes.
b. Do you think I could see your notes?
c. I seem to have lost my notes…
d. I want your notes.
e. Can I borrow your notes?
f. Please show me your notes.
g. Would it be alright if I borrowed your notes for a bit?
As you’ve probably guessed, a, d, and f are more direct (and therefore, less polite) than the other requests. B, e, and g are more polite, and c is clearly the least direct. By describing something negative, the speaker is inviting the listener to offer to lend her notes. As a general rule, formal requests (such as to professors and employers) should be polite and not overly direct. In the sections that follow, you’ll learn specific strategies for forming a variety of requests.
Using the Past Tense
To make a request less direct (and therefore, more polite), there are a couple strategies. The first one is to use the past tense, such as the simple past or past progressive. By phrasing requests in the past tense, a sense of distance is created between the speaker and the thing being requested. In this way, the request is seen as being less direct, and therefore, less confrontational toward the speaker. Look at the following examples:
I was hoping to leave work a little early today.
I wondered if I could leave work a little early today.
Practice making the following requests more polite by changing their verb forms in the past tense:
1. I wonder if you can review my report.
2. Can you review my report when you have the time?
3. I hope you can review my report.
1. I wondered if you could review my report.
2. Could you review my report when you have the time?
3. I was hoping you could review my report.
Another way to increase the politeness of a request is to add modal verbs (might, would, could, should, etc.). Look at the following examples:
Might I take a look at the report?
Could I take a look at the report?
Would you be able to show me the report?
Should I take a look at the report? (Note that requests with “should” are very soft requests because questions with “should” allow the listener to decide if the request is necessary or not.)
Practice making the following requests more polite by adding a modal verb and/or changing their verb forms in the past tense.
1. I need to go home early today.
2. I require an extension on the deadline.
3. I want to change my class schedule.
1. I wondered if you could review my report.
2. Would I be able to get an extension on the deadline?
3. Might I change my class schedule?
Softening is a pragmatic strategy that helps you make your requests sound softer, or more polite. There are three common strategies for softening: (1.) using common “softener” phrases that precede a request; (2) inserting hesitation markers; and (3) omitting “you.”
1. Softener Phrases
Below are examples of phrases you can use at the beginning of requests to make these requests sound more polite:
Do you think you could perhaps…
If it’s not too much to ask…
I was wondering if you would mind…
Did you, by any chance, happen to…
Would it be at all possible if…
When you get a chance…
2. Hesitation Markers
Hesitation markers can also make requests appear less direct. These are words and phrases such as uh, um, well, I mean, and kind of. Use these sparingly; too many added hesitation markers can make the speaker sound unconfident and/or unprofessional. Listen to the following examples to see how they are used:
If possible, uh, can I come to your office later today?
Well, if you could show me an example first, that would be great.
So I planned on, um, changing the topic of my paper, if that’s alright with you.
3. Omitting “You”
A request can further be softened by leaving out you in the request. An easy way to do this is by using the passive voice.4, 5 For example, take a look at this request:
It would be nice if you could submit this report.
While this would be an appropriate request if said to an employee, this request could be taken as too direct to a person of equal status. By using the passive voice, the listener is invited to indirectly infer that the speaker desires the listener to do something. Here’s the above request using the passive voice:
It would be nice if this report could be submitted.
Practice using the passive voice to make the following requests softer. Try adding softener phrases in your requests.
Could you get this done?
You might need to open the window.
I hope you can review this draft.
1. I was hoping this could get done.
2. The window might need to be opened.
3. I hope this draft can be reviewed.
Other Considerations When Making a Request
Some phrases commonly precede or follow requests that affect the context in which the request is made.4 For example:
1. Checking on availability (If you’re free this evening,…/If you don’t have anything going on,…)
2. Getting a pre-commitment (Would you mind doing me a favor?/Could you help me for a sec?)
3. Giving background (It was too heavy for me to carry by myself./Sorry, I seem to have lost the assignment guidelines.)
4. Complimenting (Wow, your notes are so much more organized than mine./You seem like you have a good handle on your section.)
5. Disarm (Please let me know if this is an issue…/I hope this doesn’t sound too forward of me, but…)
Scenarios for Practice
If you read the introduction to pragmatics, then you’re already familiar with some of the many factors that are involved when choosing appropriate words and phrases. In the following scenarios, choose the best response, and then check your answers.
Scenario 1: You want to meet your professor after class today. You approach her before class begins.
Professor: “Hi, did you want something?”
1. I was, um, wondering if, uh, I could, uh, meet with you after class today.
2. Would it be at all possible to meet with you after class today?
3. Yes, I need to meet with you after class today.
4. I was hoping, if you don’t mind, to maybe, um, meet with you after class today, if that’s okay.
1. I was, um, wondering if, uh, I could, uh, meet with you after class today. This request has too many hesitation markers.
2. Would it be at all possible to meet with you after class today? This request uses an appropriate softener at the beginning of the request.
3. Yes, I need to meet with you after class today. This request is too direct.
4. I was hoping, if you don’t mind, to maybe, um, meet with you after class today, if that’s okay. This request uses too many softeners.
Scenario 2: Your office doesn’t have enough office supplies. You approach your employer to ask if the office can be better equipped.
Employer: “Hi Sarah, how can I help you?”
1. Can you get us more office supplies?
2. Please get us office supplies.
3. We need office supplies, when you get a chance.
4. When you get a chance, could an order be placed for more office supplies?
1. 1. Can you get us more office supplies? This request may be appropriate if you have a close relationship with your employer, but is probably too direct.
2. Please get us office supplies. This request is too direct.
3. We need office supplies, when you get a chance. Although there is a softener at the end, this request is too direct.
4. When you get a chance, could an order be placed for more office supplies? This question uses a softener and could to form an appropriate request. Moreover, the passive voice is used so that the employer is not explicitly involved in the request.
For a full list of references used cited in the “Appropriate Communication” sections, click here.