Let’s talk about formality in English.
English is different from so many languages because we don’t have a formal or informal way of saying ‘you’. We just say…’you’. So how do we show if the situation is formal or informal?
We use different words to express this.
I’d like to share 3 tips when it comes to being formal in English.
1. Keep it simple. Remember that ‘would’ is formal, ‘could’ is semi-formal, and ‘can’ is informal. There is a big difference between ‘Can you help me?’ and ‘Would you mind helping me?’ If you are only using ‘can’ at work, chances are it might not be professional enough. Oh, and after ‘Would you mind’, you always use the verb + ing. ‘Would you mind change our meeting time?’ is wrong. ‘Would you mind changing our meeting time?’ is right. Use it and watch those eyebrows go up. People will be impressed by your new sexy formal style! Woot!
2. ‘Please’ is magic. People say the most important words to know in English are ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Often, these are the first words people learn when learning English for the first time. What most people don’t realise is the placement of ‘please’ can change the sound of your request. If you put ‘please’ BEFORE the verb – ‘Would you please call him for me?’ or ‘Can you please stop doing that?’ – it often is interpreted as showing frustration and irritation. Some people think that they are actually sounding more polite when they put please in front of the verb, but it’s actually the opposite. When we ask something for the first time, we usually put ‘please’ at the end of the request – ‘Could/ Would you print that for me, please?’. If you need to ask a second time, put ‘please’ before the verb, and if you want to show that you are REALLY upset, raise your voice while saying ‘please’ in this structure. People will get the message, believe me. (Oh, and now you might be saying ‘Holy crap, I’ve always done it that way, I have been so rude to so many people!’ and my only reaction to that is ‘Yes, you have been, and they asked me to write this just for you.’
3. If you START a request with ‘please’, like ‘Please call him for me’ or ‘Please cancel that meeting’, know that this is no longer a question. It’s what we call a ‘polite command’ in English. You are no longer asking someone to do something, you are telling them to do something. You have taken the option of saying no away from them. I’ve coached hundreds of people who were shocked to hear that they were actually just commanding people, when they thought they were being super-polite by using ‘please’ as the first word. It’s actually quite the opposite.
Please keep this in mind the next time it comes to expressing formality in English. (And yes, that is a command.)
Oh, did you see that I was featured in nu.nl recently? I was!
And that I now have a column in Management Team? I do!
And that I’m giving away a free half-hour video masterclass on Business Grammar? You betcha! It’s totally free and you’ve got nothing to lose. Except your grammar mistakes!
Lots of love, and keep it classy!