Politeness and directness

This task is about using verbs and modal verbs in different ways. We all know that people can be direct or indirect in the ways they phrase things. We often use commands to give instructions, but sometimes these might be seen as too direct and blunt. We sometimes soften them with modal verbs, among other tools.

In this activity, students will be asked to find different ways of using verbs to change the impact of a sentence. The examples below are laid out in the Handout, which can be downloaded from the bottom of this page. They can also be displayed on a projector or smart board from the Activity page, which is in the menu entitled 'This Unit' in the upper right corner of this page.

First, students should make the following expressions less direct:

  1. Shut the window.
  2. Tell me your name.
  3. Stop talking.

Then, they should ask themselves: what changes did we make to render the expressions less direct? They may have done one of several things.

The first three examples were imperatives. One way to change them into less direct expressions is to turn them into interrogatives (forms which usually ask questions) starting with modal verbs:

  • Can you shut the window?
  • Would you shut the window?

You can add politeness tokens such as please, which don’t affect the overall grammatical form of the sentence, i.e. they remain imperatives:

  • Please tell me your name.
  • Please stop talking.

You can also make them less direct by inserting other ‘distancing structures’, as in:

  • Would you mind opening the window?
  • Do you think it would be OK if I had your name?

Think about the different contexts in which you might wish to use these less direct expressions and how they offer you different options. Can you think of any other ways in which you could alter the directness of these, or other, examples?

Then, students should make the following expressions more direct:

  1. Do you think you could help me?
  2. Would you mind moving your foot? It’s on my toe.
  3. You might want to check that you’ve spelled that correctly.

Students may come up with something like the following:

  • Help me!
  • Move your foot!
  • Check that you’ve spelled that correctly.

Did you think of some other ways to be more direct?

How about Could you move your foot? This seems to be more direct than Would you mind moving your foot?, though not as direct as Move your foot!

You may have thought of other alternatives, such as You should check that you’ve spelled that correctly. What about You’ve spelled that incorrectly – does that seem more or less direct? That’s hard to answer. In one way it seems more direct, as it expresses more certainty that the spelling is incorrect (rather than just politely suggesting it). However, it doesn’t directly tell the hearer what to do. Do you think it implies that the hearer should do something about it? Would this vary with the context or the relationship between the people involved?


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