Degree of politeness: especially "Will you...?"

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Brave Heart

Senior Member
Japan, Japanese
Hi all,

I've learned that a "Will you..?" request sounds less polite and more bossy than a "Can you...?" request, but I don't know why. Could you tell me why?

In addition, which of the following would be conisdered a more polite request?

- Will you please do it for me?
- Can you do it for me?

Thanks. :)
 
  • Musical Chairs

    Senior Member
    Japan & US, Japanese & English
    The first one would be (especially with "please"). Sometimes people use "would you" too.

    "If you would do it for me, that would be great!"

    Edit: To get nit-picky, "can" asks if the person is capable of doing it, but people use it in speech to mean "will."
     

    Joelline

    Senior Member
    American English
    Basically, I agree with Musical Chairs. If you were speaking to a waiter or waitress and you wanted a cup of coffee, you could say:

    Bring me a cup of coffee, please.
    Can you bring me a cup of coffee, please?
    Could you bring me a cup of coffee, please?
    Will you bring me a cup of coffee, please?
    Would you bring me a cup of coffee, please?

    In my opinion, the first is the least polite, the most bossy. The requests become progressively more polite and less bossy as you go down the list.
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks Musical Chair and Joelline. I appreciate your help. :)

    I've never thought that "Will you" is more polite and less bossy than "Could you" ! Thanks.

    Then, if possible, could you tell me why "Will you" is considered more polite and less bossy than "Could/Can you" ?
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Will and Can have different meanings.

    Will you bring me a cup of coffee? Means to ask if you are willing to bring me a cup of coffee. It assumes that you are able to do so.

    Can you bring me a cup of coffee? Means to ask, are you physically or mentally able to bring me a cup of coffee.
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks Packard. I appreciate your help. :)

    Can I assume, then, that "Will you" is more polite because it assumes that he/she is able to do so?
     

    Joelline

    Senior Member
    American English
    Yes, it does assume that the person is able to do something, but "will" and "would" are more polite because you are asking if someone is willing to do you the favor: it sounds as if you are giving the person a choice.
     

    ryuusaki

    Member
    English & Chinese
    I was told that "would" and "could" are more polite.

    Using "will" sounds to me like that person has to do it for you and you are only asking him/her to do it, and "can" is just asking whether he/she is able to do it.

    Using "would" or "could" sounds to me you are really asking one's favour, and are hoping that person will help you.
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks Joelline and ryuusaki. I appreciate your help. :)

    Is my understanding correct that there would be almost no doubt that "Can you...?" is less polite and more bossy than "Will you...?", while there may be different views regarding comparison between "Could you...?" and "Will you...?" ?
     

    ryuusaki

    Member
    English & Chinese
    In my opinion, "can you" is a more polite, but "could"/"would" is even better. But normally when I ask people for favour, I just say "can you...?" It's totally fine. However, when I am working and talking to the customers, I say "would"/"could" most of the time. And I rarely use "will" when I ask for favour.
     

    tanager

    Senior Member
    US/English
    Honestly, it's hard to say whether the "will" forms are more polite than the "can" forms. What is certain is that "would/could" is less "bossy" and more polite: the person you ask has more freedom to refuse. I would say that the use of the conditional forms is more important than the choice of verb in terms of politeness.
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks ryuusaki. I appreciate your help. :)
    Your opinion agrees with what I've learned (or been taught).
    But, obviously, there seem to be different views about this...:(

    I would appreciate any other insights/opinions regarding this matter from anybody.
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks tanager. I appreciate your help. :)

    I would say that the use of the conditional forms is more important than the choice of verb in terms of politeness.
    Does "the use of conditional forms" here refer to the use of "would/could" ?
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    Thanks Joelline and ryuusaki. I appreciate your help. :)

    Is my understanding correct that there would be almost no doubt that "Can you...?" is less polite and more bossy than "Will you...?", while there may be different views regarding comparison between "Could you...?" and "Will you...?" ?
    I was taught that "could you" is more polite than "would you", the idea being that you expect the other person to be civil enough to be willing to if able but would not expect him/her to promise something impossible for them. Both are more polite than "can you" or "will you" because of the implied conditionality of "could" or "would" (... if the good Lord will).

    Politeness changes with the times I suppose, and neither humility nor civility are the same from century to century. What used to be proper may seem manipulative now, and what used to seem crass may now be respectfully plain spoken.
     

    tanager

    Senior Member
    US/English
    Thanks tanager. I appreciate your help. :)



    Does "the use of conditional forms" here refer to the use of "would/could" ?
    You're welcome! Yes, "conditional" = would/could. They imply that the person may or may not do what you want, depending on their desires.
     

    tanager

    Senior Member
    US/English
    I also think that "can/could" is more polite than "will/would"! "Can/could you" asks both "are you able?" and "are you/would you be willing?" whereas "will/would you" just asks "are you/would you be willing?" Thus "can/could" is more tentative, hesitant--more open to denial from the other person.
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks Forero and tanager. I appreciate your help. :)

    I have assumed (or imagined) that native speakers just inherently sense the degree of politeness, but even native speakers learn about it in school (or maybe, taught by their parents) ?

    On second thought, yes, also in Japan, there are Japanese language classes in school, where children are taught about honorific expressions. So, maybe the same thing. :)
     

    tanager

    Senior Member
    US/English
    Brave Heart,

    Don't be surprised at the amount of linguistic information which native speakers have absorbed from nowhere in particular, nowhere to which they can ascribe a specfic source . . . Of course this is true of any language, I'm sure! I can honestly say that never in my life (before your question) have I ever had occasion to consider the difference in politeness between "will" and "can," not in school or from any lesson my parents gave me . . . yet, oddly enough, I have an answer ready to your question. Strange, isn't it?
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks tanager. I appreciate your help. :)

    I can honestly say that never in my life (before your question) have I ever had occasion to consider the difference in politeness between "will" and "can," not in school or from any lesson my parents gave me . . . yet, oddly enough, I have an answer ready to your question. Strange, isn't it?
    Yes, I'm sure it's true of any language, which might be called implicit knowledge held by native speakers. And that's what most non-native speakers find hard to learn by themselves. :(
     

    Teafrog

    Senior Member
    UK English (& rusty French…)
    In my opinion, "can you" is a more polite, but "could"/"would" is even better. But normally when I ask people for favour, I just say "can you...?" It's totally fine. However, when I am working and talking to the customers, I say "would"/"could" most of the time. And I rarely use "will" when I ask for favour.
    I totally agree. In my humble opinion that would be the best answer to the original Q, especially if it is followed by "please".

    Joelline is quite right by saying
    Yes, it does assume that the person is able to do something, but "will" and "would" are more polite because you are asking if someone is willing to do you the favor: it sounds as if you are giving the person a choice.
    The key here, is the word "choice".
    I would go a step further. In England, if someone wants to be very polite, they could say "would you be so kind as to bring me another cup of tea, please?"
    Yes, it is long-winded, but it gives the other person the choice (so you are not pressurising them into doing something they might not want to do), and you also indicate that by doing so you would consider it to be a kind gesture on their part.
    The funny thing is that if they wish to refuse, they could look 'unkind and mean' to other people, which 'pressures' them (ever so softly and politely) in doing what you want them to do in the first place :D. That's what I call English ironic politeness (my words…).
    I hope this helps rather than confuse. I realise you might be wondering about the "as to" in the sentence; rather than a long explanation, it's best to have a look here.
    The short answer to your Q, Brave Heart:
    Would you bring me a cup of coffee, please? :thumbsup:
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks Teafrog. I appreciate your help. :)

    Yes, your comments are helpful. Fortunately, I'm familiar with "so...as to". But, thanks for the link. :)
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    "Will you" sounds more assertive and impatient and therefore less polite.
    A request using "please" is of course likely to sound more polite than one without "please".
    I agree that the conditonals are the most polite, especially could;
    "Please could you bring me a coffee (if it's not too much trouble)?" There is more of a sense of supplication.

    The most important thing is emphasis and tone of voice: You can make a very polite request seem demanding or an abrupt request seem polite.
    And say it with a smile!:)
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks liliput. I appreciate your help. :)

    If possible, could you tell me why "Will you" sounds more assertive and impatient? What quality of "will" makes it sound that way?
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Thanks liliput. I appreciate your help. :)

    If possible, could you tell me why "Will you" sounds more assertive and impatient? What quality of "will" makes it sound that way?
    One reason might be that we can also use "will you" for giving orders, especially to naughty children:

    Will you sit still!
    Will you stop picking your nose!
    Will you just shut up for a moment!

    The tone of voice here is different from requests, of course;)

    Loob
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    I would never use "Will you" probably for the reasons outlined by Loob. I will either use "Would you mind.." or "Can you..." depending on the status of the person being asked. If it's a "peer" I would say "Would you mind..." but if it is, say someone who works under me and I am asking them to do something that is expected as part of their job I would use "Can you..."

    The "mind" adds another level to make the request less direct. By saying "Would you mind..." I am not asking the person to do something directly, but rather asking them if they would it be a trouble to them if they did do it.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    "Polite" may be the wrong word here. "Less Imperious" might be more appropriate.

    That is, less as a "commander" and more as an "equal".
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks guys. I appreciate your help. :)

    "Will you" sounds more assertive and impatient and therefore less polite.
    I've been wondering if the following has something to do with this assertive and impatient tone.

    Yesterday, I learned in this forum that "You will do as I say" has a threatening tone, compared with simple "Do as I say". Does this have something to do with the assertive and impatient tone associated with "Will you" ?
     

    Macunaíma

    Senior Member
    português, Brasil
    Another interesting use of will to form questions is when it's used to form question tags after a command. I often hear that in movies set in the past, so I guess it might be a little old-fashioned.

    (A rich old lady to her butler) "James, dear, bring me some tea now, will you?"
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    Another interesting use of will to form questions is when it's used to form question tags after a command. I often hear that in movies set in the past, so I guess it might be a little old-fashioned.

    (A rich old lady to her butler) "James, dear, bring me some tea now, will you?"
    I still find the use of "will" here too "assertive and impatient" (To quote lilliput's excellent suggestion of its nuance) even when spoken to a servant (although I doubt a lady of the house would refer to her butler as "dear"). "Would you" is what I hear in its place in this sentence.
     

    Brave Heart

    Senior Member
    Japan, Japanese
    Thanks Macunaima and Matching Mole. I appreciate your help. :)

    Yes, "will you" in the form of a question tag is also interesting, and indeed I wanted to know whether it has that assertive and impatient tone as well. Thanks.
     
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