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Politeness by Mike Mills

In English there are many ways we show politeness and respect


and, despite what people think, the use of sir and ma'am is not an important one. These words are used far more rarely than students think.


In Britain it is unusual for someone in the street to say:

Excuse me, sir - can you tell me the way to the station?

The people who use the word sir in this way are usually tourists hoping to sound polite; or someone expecting some money for a service - a taxi driver or a waiter, for example:

That will be £12, sir. Thank you!

  • The word please is used with almost every request in Britain.

Many visitors don't realise that, when they go into a cafe and say A coffee or I want a coffee or even Can I have a coffee? (which might be perfectly all right in their own language) they appear to be impolite, and cannot understand it when the person serving spills the coffee all over them! Just adding a simple please would make an immediate difference and possibly even merit a smile:

A coffee, please. Or I would like a coffee, please.

English-speakers sometimes imply the word please using the correct intonation - but if your knowledge of English is only moderate, it's better - and safer - to always use the word please!


  • Let's look at polite ways of asking questions and favours of people:

Instead of a direct question we often use Can you and Could you before we say what we want. Look at these examples, which are from a normal conversation at home between husband and wife:

Can you carry this bag into the house please?

Could you move the table against the wall, please?


Could is a little more polite than Can but both questions contain the word please.

Carry this bag into the house


Move the table up against the wall

are possible, but English speakers would know when they could make requests in this way without causing offence, and the correct intonation is important.

If you are not a native English speaker, then to use Can and Could to introduce a request is wise. It's courteous and makes a good impression.

In fact, you can be even more polite:


Sorry - could you tell me the way to Oxford Street, please?

Sorry - could you tell me your name again, please?


It's very common to start a request with the word sorry.

What it really means is I'm sorry to give you a problem

but we use it very often in everyday situations and it is polite and courteous.

If you need a special favour, try

I'm sorry to bother you but could you possibly help me, please?

You might say to a friend

Hey John - lend me £100, will you?

but you couldn't say this to somebody you do not know well!


If you're sitting in a restaurant and you need another chair then you would go to another table and ask

Sorry - could I take this chair, please?

And here's another way of saying it - a little more difficult, but equally polite:

Sorry, would you mind if I took this chair, please?

And the person may respond with No, that's fine. Or Go ahead please.


You could also ask:

Would it be all right if I took this chair, please?

To agree for you to take it, the person may respond :

Yes, that's fine. Or No, sorry - I need it.

This is a common way of asking politely for something. But you have to start with

Would and then put the other verb in the Past.


  • Now look at the answer to the request

Sorry - Would you mind if I closed the window, please?

No - that's fine.

Why do we say No? Because would you mind means is it a problem? and the answer is no!


Other answers to would you mind.... are:

Would you mind if I closed the window?  - No, that's perfectly OK.

Would you mind if I took this chair, please? - Go ahead or That's ok.


Sorry everybody, would you mind if I said goodbye now? I'm worn out! Bye!


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