Communication Hacks: Polite English

How to be polite | Learn English Online

You could be surprised but for me, using polite English is very much connected to confidence. I am not a manners coach. My objective is not to teach you how to manipulate people. I intend to teach you language tricks which will help you adapt to a different cultural code of a foreign language, in our case, English.

We will cover 3 things: set expressions, set structures used for social contexts, and grammar tricks to help you sound polite and appropriate in everyday communication.  

Why would you need to be polite, anyway?

When you speak English, you obviously don’t communicate to people who speak your native language. It means this culture is new for you. To be confident you are doing it all right, you need to accept another communication standard and stop comparing it to your own language.

I have some students who keep asking why: ‘Why can’t I just say it like I say it in my own language?’ That’s because you live in another reality. If you travelled around the world, you certainly understand what I am talking about. To become fluent in a new language, you need to follow social standards. In turn, understanding cultural background will help you understand a lot with grammar structures and set expressions, which usually speeds up your learning.

The English speakers are famous for their politeness, especially the British. They use Thank you and Please a lot, they are good at small talk, and they are utterly polite.

And my task is not to change who you are, but to give you something you will know how to use. I want to give you language tools which will help you find your comfort zone.

Today we keep talking about functional language because this is exactly what we will use to communicate. The tips below will help you be received well in many contexts – semi-formal and formal ones. Be nice and establish good contact with your Polite English.

Why is Polite English tricky for learners?

It’s very much possible that in your native language you have two different forms of you like we have, for example, in Russian, ‘ty’ for singular and ‘vy’ for plural and polite addressing to people. Grammatically, they build a structure which will show a listener straightaway if you are being polite or informal. English doesn’t have this difference, and this is where the problem starts. That’s why we will need external ways to show the respect which we want to show to people we don’t know well or when we are experiencing some difficulties.

Again, I am not teaching you how to sound formal – I don’t want you to sound cold and distant. Formal language is used in a limited number of situations and I recommend to learn it as a separate skill once you understand you need it.

Ok, now let’s start with set expressions.

All these ‘sorries’ we get confused about

We have four types of sorry in English. I will start with 3, but the fourth one will be covered in the next part.

We can say Excuse me, we can say Pardon, and we can say I am sorry. They could be translated the same into some languages. If it’s the case, then remember the right context for every expression.

We use Excuse me to start a conversation, to attract someone’s attention, to talk to somebody who is not looking at you. You also use it to pass through the crowd.

Pardon will be used to ask a person to repeat if you didn’t hear or didn’t understand something (Sorry is also possible, but not I am sorry). And it’s ok to ask. Sometimes you don’t understand not because your English is terrible but because the situation is tricky (it could be a noisy place or a person is not speaking clearly). So, we use Pardon to ask for clarification.

And you use I am sorry to apologise for something. You need a reason to say I am sorry. If you did something wrong, or if an accident happened. You also say I am sorry to show sympathy (beware: it’s a false friend for many languages – ‘sympathy’ means ‘expressing care and understanding to someone suffering’), e.g. I am very sorry you didn’t pass the exam.

Smart Language Learning Blog: Polite English (examples)

You will look awkward if you mix them up. And surely we don’t want that.


What you need to know about structures

Now, I will show you one of the biggest communicative mistakes of English learners. When they want to to be polite in English, they say: ‘Make dinner, please’. They think that Please added to their imperative sentence, this will make the phrase polite. But it doesn’t work like that in English. ‘Make dinner’ is an imperative construction, a command. So, you are giving an order to another person. And when you add please, it doesn’t change it – it’s still a command, just a bit softer.

Instead, you use a question structure.

‘Can you make dinner, please’ is good in the informal style.

‘Could you make dinner, please’ will be very polite, appropriate even for formal conversations.

‘Could you possibly make dinner, please’ is very polite, with a bit of British flavour (classy, isn’t it?).

At the same time, be careful not to overuse social formulas. If you use them too much, people could think you are mocking them and that you are disrespectful. It could sound a bit weird too, like that strange man from ‘Mind your language’ TV series (Have you seen it, by the way? It’s a great resource for English learners!)

Which structures will be always handy

Can (informal) and Could (formal) are used to ask for help or to ask somebody to do something for you. When you have a request, if you want other people to do something for you – this is where you use them.

Another structure – very popular amongst English users and strangely unpopular amongst English learners. When you offer your help or suggest doing something together, we use Shall I for former and Shall we for latter. ‘I will...’ is too direct.

Thirdly, you need to remember is how to soften your messages in order not to sound too harsh. You use ‘I am afraid’ or ‘I have to’ at the beginning of the sentences, especially if you are going to say something not very pleasant.

When you want to refuse an offer, when you want to say ‘No’, or when you are telling some bad news, you start with ‘I am afraid’. You can’t say I am sorry here, because you didn’t do anything wrong, and you are just trying to be nice.

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And how can grammar help?

And now moving to grammar tricks. There are some special grammar changes you can make to your structures to make them more socially acceptable.

What I would like to warn you about: don’t forget that I am telling you about standards of spoken communication. If you start mixing tenses in a narrative, it can be confusing for your reader. So, please be sure to use this grammar in the right context.

It’s very popular to use past forms for the present to make it sound less direct and more polite.  You also replace a Simple tense form with the one in Continuous because Continuous will help you sound more emotional – we want sometimes to show our soft sides.

Smart Language Learning Blog: Polite English (examples 3)

And the second grammar trick: it is polite if you make your statement a bit subjective. It is recommended to use ‘a bit’, ‘I think’, ‘maybe’, ‘a little’, ‘quite’ to sound a little bit vague, not too direct. Be careful because these words are prohibited for use in written speech. So, if you are writing a letter, an article, an essay and so on it is not appropriate whereas it sounds good in speaking.

Smart Language Learning blog: Polite English (examples 4)

So, this grammar helps you use polite English to make sure your communication is positive, respectful and that you are winning it. If you are nice, you will be popular.

Let’s revise briefly what we have learnt today

1) difference between phrases Excuse me (starts a conversation), Pardon (asks for clarification), and I am sorry (apologises).

2) use structures Can you / Could you for requests, Shall I / Shall we for suggestions, and ‘I am afraid’ to start the sentence if you are saying something not very positive for the listener.

3) also, you use Past or Continuous forms instead of Simple tense forms and you use softening expressions (a bit, a little, I think, it seems, it looks like and so on) to sound less direct.

These are simple tricks but they will help you sound right in the most everyday contexts.

If you have any questions or thoughts about politeness, let’s chat in the comments!

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