Communication, Email Writing

Making Polite Requests

Could you check to make sure this sounds polite?

This is an important email, and I don’t want to be rude.

Please check for mistakes and change the sentences so they sound polite.

Our TextRanch customers often leave notes like the ones above. In most cases, it happens when they are submitting a business email where are asking another person to do something for them. It could be a routine task, such as sending some files, or it could be a very unpleasant or challenging assignment. Either way, the TextRanch customer wants their request to sound polite. They do not want to be rude to a colleague, a business associate, a client, or a supervisor.

Both language and cultural issues can make it difficult to determine if a request sounds rude or polite. Therefore, we are going to look at the types of sentences that would be considered rude by much of the English-speaking world. Once you understand what not to do, we can adjust those sentences so they sound more polite.

Do this! Don’t do that!

Our recent article about exclamation points includes a section about imperative sentences. These are sentences where someone is telling others to do (or not do) something. They are also known as direct commands. Imperative sentences start with a verb and are usually brief and straight to the point. Sometimes they end with an exclamation point, but not always. Even without the exclamation point, they generally have an urgent tone. In some contexts, this is fine. Consider the following example:

Get out of the building right now!

If the building is on fire, or if the roof is about to collapse, the above sentence would be considered appropriate in the English-speaking world. However, if you own a store and it’s almost closing time, it would be considered extremely rude to speak that way to your customers. Once they left the building, they probably wouldn’t ever come back! A more polite sentence would be, “The store is closing in five minutes, so please bring your items to the check-out counter”.

Here are some additional examples. In the left column is an imperative sentence that might sound pushy or rude—or akin to a drill sergeant in the army. On the right side, you will find a more gentle, polite way to make that same request.

Imperative SentenceA More Polite Alternative
Answer all of the questions.Please answer all of the questions.
Send me the documents.Could you please send me the documents? I cannot fill out the tax returns without them.
Fix these slides.Some of the slides aren’t showing up on the screen. Could you please fix this issue?
Give me your calculator.Is it okay if I use your calculator?
Clean up that mess in the cafeteria.I know it’s a lot to ask, but I would really appreciate it if you would clean up the mess in the cafeteria.
Finish that report now!Our team really needs that report to be finished today.
Bring me some coffee!I could really use a cup of coffee right now. Could you bring me some, please?
Don’t open the freezer in the lab!I am working on some tissue samples that need to remain frozen for 24 hours, so please don’t open the freezer in the lab.

What’s the difference?

Sometimes a request sounds a lot more polite if we simply add the word “please“. Other times, a sentence needs a lot more work. If we look at the table above, we can notice the following:

  • Some of the sentences in the “Polite” column are questions. This is because it’s more polite to ask someone to do something instead of ordering them to do something.
  • In addition to being more polite, it can be helpful to briefly explain why you are making a certain request.
  • If you are asking someone to do an unpleasant or stressful task, it’s more polite to acknowledge this when you make your request (e.g., the sentence about cleaning the cafeteria in the table above).
  • You can also start your request with an “I” statement, where you are expressing your own feelings or needs. The last two sentences in the table above are examples of this.

The above tips should help you determine if a request sounds polite. If you still aren’t sure, click the link below. One of our TextRanch editors will look over your text and give you some feedback.

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