Degrees of Politeness in English
One of the first things children are taught is how to be polite. It’s a very important thing to know, especially the different degrees of politeness! In fact, when I was younger, I went to what is called a “cotillion school,” which is essentially a Southern school for manners and etiquette.
There I learned how to sit properly (correctly) at the dinner table, which fork to start with when eating, how to introduce people to each other to invite (promote, encourage, help start) conversation, and how to dance the waltz. Though often associated with attending fancy dinners, Cotillion classes taught me the finer details of how to react (respond, answer) when I’m faced with multiple forks at dinner and, more importantly, how to present myself positively.
It’s important to be polite when speaking, too. You don’t want to tell your breakfast guests to “sit,” nor miss the suitable words for your current company. So this week we’ll be focusing on degrees of politeness in English, using the phrase “Pass the salt” as an example, so that you can see how to say things in varying ways of politeness to fit the situation. Good luck!
Pass the salt.
Saying only, “pass the salt” can be seen as a little abrupt (sudden, unexpected), and should probably be avoided in general. It could be seen as very rude (impolite), especially if you’re at a company or other formal dinner.
(I suppose if you were really looking for the lowest common denominator (lowest state of sophistication) in communication, you could just shout, “Salt!”)
Pass the salt, please.
This phrase is a step up from the simple “Pass the salt,” as it has the word please at the end. It’s not recommended to use this phrase in polite company, however. For example, I would probably only say this at home with my partner when I’m very tired after a long and stressful day. “Pass the salt, please” is still quite curt (abrupt, terse), and should only be said around very close family or friends.
Could you pass the salt, please?
This is the version of the phrase I would recommend using as your go-to (default, fail-safe). This version is already much more polite than the first two, as it is a request, rather than a demand. It gives the person you’re asking the option of not handing you the salt, if they choose. This version can be used at home, in a restaurant, with friends or family, and with colleagues. It’s appropriate for almost any occasion, and can be used at just about any time.
Would you mind passing the salt, please?
If I were to be invited to a black-tie dinner and didn’t know anyone there, I would probably use this version of the phrase to make a good impression. It is very formal, polite, and frames (phrases, styles, sets up) the question in a way that puts the ball firmly in the other person’s court (their turn to make a decision) as to whether they’ll give you the salt or not.
If it’s not too much trouble, would you please be able to pass the salt?
This phrasing is extremely polite, a bit wordy (having too many words, clumsy sounding), and I would very rarely (if ever) say this version- or maybe only if I was invited to dinner with the Queen… This version is almost too polite, in my opinion, but if you’re at an extremely fancy dinner, and don’t have much to add to the conversation anyway, it could work.
Why not try some out a few versions of these degrees of politeness in English yourself in the comments below? We’ll make sure to answer any questions you may have, and help you along the way!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, yoga instructor, and would be honored if you, dear friend, would be so kind as to pretty please, with a cherry on top, subscribe to this blog, share our posts, and leave us a comment below! 🙂
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