when/what is the latest...

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swim4life

Senior Member
Chinese, China
This is a question I frequently asked my native English-speaking clients in terms of a maximum permissible delay(deadline): "Please let me know when/what is the latest you need this document back." I’m wondering if I should use when or what in this sentence. Thanks.
 
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  • e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    You would say "when at the latest".
    If you use "what" you have to add "time" and the preposition by.
    Perhaps you would like to restate your question using "what". :)
     

    KHS

    Senior Member
    In informal English, particularly in conversation, I think you can use both 'when' and 'what' (at least in AmE) in the context you give. If you want to express the idea in a more formal way in which grammatical precision is particularly important, you can follow e2efour's explanation
     

    Fabulist

    Banned
    American English
    Sorry, I find the whole sentence to be badly written. I would write something like, "Please let me know the latest date by which I may return this document." Informally, "When do you absolutely need this back?" would work.

    Frankly, however, I would consider anyone making such a request to be difficult and uncooperative unless it was prefaced by some explanation, such as, "I have a lot of prior assignments already." Otherwise, it looks like you're fishing for the maximum delay you can get away with. But as it stands, if I were your supervisor, I'd just tell you to get it done right away, and if I were a customer, I'd tell you not to bother, I'll find a competitor to do it.
     

    swim4life

    Senior Member
    Chinese, China
    Frankly, however, I would consider anyone making such a request to be difficult and uncooperative unless it was prefaced by some explanation, such as, "I have a lot of prior assignments already." Otherwise, it looks like you're fishing for the maximum delay you can get away with. But as it stands, if I were your supervisor, I'd just tell you to get it done right away, and if I were a customer, I'd tell you not to bother, I'll find a competitor to do it.
    Thank you very much for replying. The context is that they are my loyal clients. I have a lot of prior assignments already and I’m asking for a maximum permissible delay.
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Sorry, I find the whole sentence to be badly written. Informally, "When do you absolutely need this back?" would work.

    The use of absolutely I find odd. In BE I would write really. I also find it rather brusque and impolite (direct, if you prefer another word).

    Frankly, however, I would consider anyone making such a request to be difficult and uncooperative unless it was prefaced by some explanation, such as, "I have a lot of prior assignments already." Otherwise, it looks like you're fishing for the maximum delay you can get away with. But as it stands, if I were your supervisor, I'd just tell you to get it done right away, and if I were a customer, I'd tell you not to bother, I'll find a competitor to do it.
    I am puzzled by your negative reaction to what sounded to me was intended as a polite request, although ungrammatical. If you were my customer and you replied in the way you suggest, I would thank my lucky stars I didn't have to deal with you. :)

    "Could you please let me know what date at the latest you need this document back [by]?" sounds to me like a harmless request (although I would prefer a version using "when").
     

    Fabulist

    Banned
    American English
    I think we might be getting off topic, but "What's the latest you need it by" sounds like a student asking, "What's the minimum amount I have to learn to get a passing grade?" or an employee asking "What's the minimum I can do without getting fired?" It's reasonable to ask when a supervisor, teacher, or client wants an assignment or job completed. If that deadline would be impossible, or difficult, to meet, there are ways to indicate that and negotiate an extension, if the person setting the deadline is in a position to grant one. If I was a longstanding client, and this was the first time the question had been asked, I would know that something unusual was going on. I could then state my requirement and take this particular job elsewhere if my deadlilne could not be met. That would certainly be preferable to an agreement by my contractor to my unrealistic (for him) deadline and a later delivery default when it was too late to seek an alternative supplier.

    But I would not start a negotiation with "What's the least I can do for you?" and I would not advise anyone else to do so—in English or any other language.

    At least not in the U.S. Your mileage may vary.
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    But I would not start a negotiation with "What's the least I can do for you?" and I would not advise anyone else to do so—in English or any other language.

    At least not in the U.S. Your mileage may vary.
    I don't understand why you assume the above applies to the original question.

    I work as a translator and the question asked by swim4life is one I not infrequently put to my customers. In their language (Swedish) they sometimes use what translates literally to "as soon as possible", but which can actually mean anything from the next day or the next week. I therefore ask for a deadline, since I don't want to be in the position of having to rush. I could say (in Swedish) "When do you want it back by?", which seems a reasonable thing to say.
     

    swim4life

    Senior Member
    Chinese, China
    Yes, we are a little getting off topic...it seems to me that it's more than a word choice in this thread...The non-native speaker "incompetence" always made my request impolite though I didn't mean to. I found the same problems among my Chinese colleagues.
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    I would just say "When do you need this document back?" and not get into the question of what is the absolute latest date. If they need it back by Thursday, then that's when they need it back. If they have a deadline they will probably tell you their deadline.
     

    swim4life

    Senior Member
    Chinese, China
    I would just say "When do you need this document back?" and not get into the question of what is the absolute latest date. If they need it back by Thursday, then that's when they need it back. If they have a deadline they will probably tell you their deadline.
    That really makes sense though I was really asking for a maximum permissible delay (extended deadline) when I asked this question.
     

    Fabulist

    Banned
    American English
    I would just say "When do you need this document back?" and not get into the question of what is the absolute latest date. If they need it back by Thursday, then that's when they need it back. If they have a deadline they will probably tell you their deadline.
    Yes, that's what I had in mind. If you can't deliver it by Thursday, you can say so. If they really want you to do it, they can extend the deadline, or ask "Well, if you can't get it done by Thursday, when can you get it done?" They might even ask for it by Thursday even if they don't absolutely, positively need it until the following Monday. But it might be more convenient for them to have it by Thursday.

    But asking at the beginning for the latest they can possibly accept it, even at the cost of a big corporate or personal hassle, is not a good way to do business, at least in my part of the world.
     
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