The Puzzling Parlance of Please

For Tina and Henry… 
  1. used in polite requests or questions.
    “please address letters to the Editor”

The world’s awash with Trump right now, so I thought an undemanding (if slightly facetious) language lesson might be just the ticket to lighten the mood.

The subject of today’s discussion has long been a linguistic bugbear of mine, though doubtless of little consequence to anyone else (as with the majority of my linguistic bugbears); it’s a word most of us use daily, though it could be argued that it’s not always used where it counts.

I’m still undecided if this misuse is just because we’ve become polite to a fault*, or if people genuinely don’t recognise that there’s a difference. I suspect the latter.

I noticed it again on the train yesterday morning: “Please change at Town Hall for T4 Eastern Suburbs line trains”. There are examples of it everywhere.

If it’s true that there’s a time and a place for everything, “please” is frequently both mistimed and misplaced. There’s appropriate courtesy and there’s courtesy that’s redundant. As in so many cases, it all boils down to context: do the words form a request or an instruction?

It may well be appropriate to kick off a request with “please”—for example, “Please close the door after entering” or “Please don’t feed the birds” or “Please send expressions of interest to the Manager”; we’re not obliged to adhere to these requests, we’re merely being asked to do something (or not).

But there’s no need for said niceties if the sole purpose of the words is to provide instruction or information—“DO NOT USE LIFTS IF THERE IS A FIRE”, “Press red button to open doors”, “Enter your PIN to sign in”, and so on.

So “Please change at Town Hall for T4 Eastern Suburbs line trains” doesn’t work because the “please” alters the context, by turning an instruction into a request—as if Sydney Trains were asking us to change lines, whether we need to or not. Clearly, the words aren’t asking us to do that, they’re simply informing us that we can connect to the Eastern Suburbs line if we change trains at Town Hall station. It’s just a statement of fact, so there’s no “please” required.

Here’s another one I saw recently: “Please swipe security pass to proceed through barrier”. So, do I have a choice? Is there some other way I can proceed through the barrier without swiping my security pass? If the answer is no then, again, it isn’t a request, it’s an instruction. If I can’t get through the barrier any other way, if there’s no alternative to swiping my security pass, there’s no need for “please”; I either swipe my pass or I don’t proceed through the barrier.

Here’s another, from a recent call to my car insurer: “For car insurance, please press 1. For home, contents and landlord’s insurance, please press 2…” and so on. Do I have any choice in the course of action to be taken? Can I either press 1 or press anything other than 1 if I want to discuss car insurance? Or, is it the case that I must press 1 to discuss car insurance? If I have no alternative but to press 1, it can’t be interpreted as an open-ended option with multiple ‘next steps’ available; nor, unless some other generic option is provided (which, in this case, it wasn’t) can it be interpreted as something that I can either do or not do and still end up discussing car insurance with someone. This is simply an instruction so, again, no “please” is needed.

The most likely culprit here is an inability to distinguish between the concepts of instruction, information and request on the part of those charged with authoring, reviewing and/or approving such words. I’m telling someone how to do something, so I must say “please” or it will sound too harsh.

While the line might seem a fine one, it really isn’t; when providing relevant instruction for the benefit of the intended consumer, it’s actually pretty simple to avoid the message being interpreted as harsh: just word it properly.

Example: “Remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner or you will be punched in the face”. Undeniably harsh. Threats of physical violence tend to have that effect, regardless of context.

Refined: “Please remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner or you will be punched in the face”. It’s still harsh. “Please” does nothing to diminish the threat; nor does it negate the requirement to remove said items.

Further refined: “Please remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner”. Closer to OK, but still not quite right. The upshot here is that you have no alternative but to remove any of the named items from on or about your person, if you ever wish to move beyond the security screening point. It’s a mandatory requirement—saying “please” at the beginning makes about as much sense as a 1980s Mum or Dad shouting “PLEASE GO TO YOUR ROOM, YOU AWFUL LITTLE BRAT!” to their hideously behaved nine-year-old (who may or may not have been me).

Final refinement: “Remove all jewellery, belts, shoes and mobile devices before passing through scanner”. This one gets it right. It’s brief and to the point. It’s authoritative without sounding harsh, but neither does it give an impression of being unenforceable or that there’s any alternative—we’re being told, not asked.

So, please, next time you see or read (or even say) “please”, stop for a moment and consider if the words are asking or telling. Keep an eye out for them coz they really are everywhere.

Why not challenge yourself—please see how many redundant ‘please’ pleas you can find.


*arguably an odd thought, considering that society’s moved so far away from manners and politeness in so many areas where they should count, yet it’s also become painfully polite where it’s really not needed.

2 thoughts on “The Puzzling Parlance of Please

  1. Oh my! I may be guilty of this! I would say that I am a natural ‘teller’ (bossing people to do stuff) so I think I will have to be mindful of my usage of ‘please’. In my defence, I use ‘please’ to soften my bossiness.

    A riveting read Matt. Cannot wait for your next rant. Please sir, may I have some more? Or should I say, ‘sir, I want some more!’ Lol

  2. Love it. Although technically with the “please press 1”: you could press another number and then need to be transferred back, resulting in time wasted for the company… So they could be requesting you to press the appropriate number and not just be a douche and press whatever you want….

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