by Kate Woodford
It’s often said that native English speakers use a lot of ‘softeners’ in their language – those words and phrases which make us sound nicer and more polite, (even if they have very little actual meaning). This week we’re taking a look at softeners and the sort of situations in which we often use them.
An obvious place to start is requesting – asking politely for things or for help. (It’s obviously a good idea to sound polite and pleasant if you want something from someone!) There are several ways to make it clear to someone that you are requesting something and not demanding it. Could I take this chair, please? sounds just a little bit nicer than Can I take this chair, please? The meaning is the same in both sentences, but with ‘could’ the speaker sounds a little less sure of the answer and this makes the request sound more polite. If you add the word ‘possibly’ to this phrase, you sound even more polite:
Could I possibly borrow this umbrella?
Another way of ‘softening’ (= making nicer) a request for something is to use the slightly more complicated phrase, Do you mind…?:
Do you mind if I turn the music down?
Do you mind taking these downstairs, please?
To be even more polite, you might say, Would you mind…? (‘Would’ sounds a little less sure than ‘do’):
Would you mind if I turned the music down?
Would you mind helping me with these boxes, please?
Note the past tense ‘turned’ in the first example. (Do you mind if I turn…?/Would you mind if I turned…?)
Another softener that is often used when requesting something is the word just. ‘Just’ makes a request sound as if it is only a little thing that you are asking for:
Could I just ask you to move your chair, please?
Could I just take this book, please?
People at work who are asking customers/patients, etc. to do things obviously need to sound polite. A softener often used with requests in this type of situation is the phrase ‘for me’. It comes at the end of the sentence:
Nurse: Could you just roll your sleeve up for me?
Person in a bank: Could you sign your name there for me?
‘At all’ is another ‘softening’ phrase used in work situations. People often use it when making enquiries of the ‘Have you got x’? type. The phrase has absolutely no meaning used in this way, but seems to make the speaker less embarrassed about asking a complete stranger a direct question:
Have you got a yearly pass at all?
Do you have a members’ card at all?
I’m sorry, we’re using that chair.
I’m afraid we need those books.
Two other softeners that people often use in this situation are ‘Actually…’ and ‘If you don’t mind…’. Again, they have little real meaning, but they do ‘soften’ the refusal, making it sound a little nicer:
Q: Have you got a moment, Ian – I need to ask you about something.
A: Actually, I’m a bit busy at the moment. Could we speak this afternoon?
A: If you don’t mind, I’m a bit busy at the moment. Could you manage this afternoon at some point?
This week we have looked at softeners used in requests and refusals. Next week we will look at softeners used when disagreeing.