please find attached...

I've been to two conferences in the past two weeks, presenting studies on British and American use of the word please. It was a blog post here that inspired this new research direction: three years ago I posted about whether one says please when ordering in restaurants (click that link for lots of discussion!). If you read the comments at that post, you'll see Americans saying things like 
Please winds up feeling impolite with people that you don't have the right to order around, ie anyone other than your children.
and British commenters saying things like 
not saying please makes it sound like a lord giving an order to his butler
--that is, Americans saying please sounds bossy and Brits saying 'you have to say please, or else you'll sound bossy'. The conference papers will turn into one or two journal articles (eventually!). In the meantime, the two studies brought up so many little factoids about please that I could do at least a half a dozen blog posts on them. Let's start with one and see how I go.

This one comes from the work I'm doing with Rachele De Felice of the Survey of English Usage at University College London and that we presented at the Corpus Linguistics 2015 conference. We're looking at requests (1,350 of them in total) in two corpora of corporate emails, one from a British company that will remain anonymous, and the other from an American company you might have heard of. We found, as others have in other data, that twice as many British requests as American ones include please. What's more, in British English please is particularly often used in requests that do not involve much of an imposition--things like please don't hesitate to call if you need assistance, please note that tomorrow is a holiday or please accept our congratulations. They have the form of an imperative sentence (do this!), but the recipient is not actually asked to do much of anything; instead, they're offered something (help, information, congratulations).

This brings us to one of the types of please-imperatives found in the email data: please find attached and its relatives please find enclosed and please find below. There were 20 of these in the British data and two in the American data — all of them with please. So, not only do we have far fewer American please find attached's, we don't have any please-less find attached's. Surely British corporate emailers don't attach documents 10 times more often as American ones do?

The mystery of the missing find attached's is solved when we consider that this is another case where the "command" isn't really much of a command at all. There's no need to boss around the other person to go about finding things, since the sentence is just communicating "I have attached a document for you". In fact, it would be just plain weird to put this into another request form like Could you please find the document attached? or I would be very grateful if you would find the document attached. This underscores that please find attached is not much of a request at all. It is instead a set phrase in imperative form that does a not-very-requesty job.

We found that American business people are actively discouraged from using this set phrase. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner has to say (highlighting added):

enclosed please find; please find enclosed; enclosed herewith; enclosed herein. 

These phrases—common in commercial and legal correspondence—are archaic deadwood for here are, enclosed is, I've enclosed, I am enclosing, or the like. 



Garner goes on to cite sources from the 19th century onward (all of them American) that agree that please find enclosed is a horrible business-ism that should be avoided. My small forays into (the possibly smaller genre of) British business writing advice has not turned up anything at all about this phrase. (Let me know if you know of any advice in either direction.)

Whatever you think of please find attached, it creates problems for our comparative speech-act research. If we look at British imperatives in our email data and say "84% have please, while only 43% of American imperatives do", it looks like maybe the Americans are bossier--ordering people around without saying please. But that might not be the best way to look at it.

Another way to look at it is: British emailers often only say please because they've put messages into command form that American emailers might put into a declarative sentence. The imperative could be seen as more imperious (or at least officious) than putting the same message into a declarative sentence.

And with that, I'll leave you with a British please sign that Peter Austin posted in the week of our presentation:

Postscript, 10 Sept 2015: I've just had a please crisis while writing an email to ask the person who runs our webpage. I needed to ask her to put up a different document than the one she'd put up for me earlier in the day. I wrote:
So...could the online version be updated to this? 
Since I'm in England, I thought 'Maybe I should add a please...' But look at what happens when I do:
 So...could the online version be updated to this please? 
The problem here is that my way of being polite was to make the request indirect. It's passive so doesn't say 'would you update it' and it has a pretty weak modal verb--not would or could but can. The impersonalisation makes the request easier to reject: No, it can't be done because... rather than I can't/won't do it...
It also makes the request less bossy, in that I'm not asking someone to do something, I'm asking about the possibility of something being done--giving her the (probably fictional) option of outsourcing it.

It doesn't work with please because please says 'here's a request', and I've phrased this as not-a-request, but as a question of possibility.

All this is just to again make the point that just because Americans say please less, it doesn't mean they're (we're!) doing less politeness work.  And sometimes Americans are more indirect than they're (we're!)  given credit for!

59 comments

  1. I have found that American's don't like saying sorry. It's a sign of failure and weakness. Apologies for minor things are "excuse me" but never "sorry". Hope you'll put this word to the test too.

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    1. I find however the overuse of 'sorry' often renders the apology insincere for it is used as a filler word rather than to express true regret.

      I have ever also found that the overuse of the phrase 'I love you.' has the same effect

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    2. I find however the overuse of 'sorry' often renders the apology insincere for it is used as a filler word rather than to express true regret.

      I have ever also found that the overuse of the phrase 'I love you.' has the same effect

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  2. I think the essence of the old-style BrE please here is that isn't attached to a request. Indeed, it isn't attached to any single speech act. Rather the speaker/writer is attaching it to the whole conversation — elevating it from the sort of tone where bare imperatives are exchanged.

    In a careless moment we might sprinkle our exchanged with kindly for the same general effect. My father — a master of the artless conversational letter — would sometimes write things like which I kindly enclose or which you'll kindly find enclosed.

    I don't think it can be a coincidence that other languages use the same word to mark both polite requests and gracious offers. Think Italian prego, German Bitte and Russian пожалуйста (approximate pronunciation puzhalstuh). The French Je vous en prie would at first glance seem to mean 'I beg it of you' but is actually closer to 'Sure, go ahead'.

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  5. But why the imperative in the first place? I hear you ask.

    I suspect that we started using imperatives in letters so as to avoid the word I, which can be a bit of a taboo in BrE.

    In the past we wouldn't think of enclosed is and we'd avoid the egotistical I enclose or I'm enclosing. The latter would also be far too conversational — an objection that would apply to here are.

    Please find enclosed may be a little old fashioned now but Please accept the offer of ... and Please accept our apology for ... are both very much the norm.

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  6. So Americans think it's more polite not to say "please" when asking someone to do something? I'm american and I think that's ridiculous. "Please" is polite.

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  7. I had become aware (self-conscious?) of using "Please find attached" when emailing Americans simply because none of them had used it in emails to me, but I couldn't put my finger on why it should be more of a British phrase than American.

    But, oh, the irony of 19th century Americans stating that a particular phrase is "a horrible business-ism that should be avoided". I've just seen a cracking Facebook post showing a flowchart on acceptable use of "reach out" (to mean contact someone).

    "Is it acceptable for me to use the term "reach out" in the workplace?"
    ----------->>> Are you a member of The Four Tops?
    --------------->>>> Yes >>>> It's acceptable
    --------------->>>> No >>>> Stop it immediately

    And don't get me started on "bandwidth"...

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  8. Interesting. I remember seeing and using 'please find enclosed' during my life in the last century, but when emailing prefer to write 'herewith' because it's more concise (this is as much an RSI-avoidance tactic as it is a Hemingwayesque style statement).

    I'm a Brit who went to school in Ireland and England.

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  9. In my capacity as the secretary to a choir, I usually write, by email: 'I attach the minutes. Please let me know of any errors or omissions' and I think that is as pared-down (or abrupt) as one could make it!

    I once sent a query to a BBC Radio 4 programme that promised to find answers: My 'Please tell me why XYZ' was read out imploringly as 'Please, tell me why XYZ' which seemed inappropriate. In this position the 'please' is not a plea, more of an order!

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  10. Very interesting post, as always. On a side topic, I notice you wrote "Let's start with one and see how I go," and I wonder whether that's a British idiom, or a regional American one, or maybe just a slip of the finger. To my ears (53, raised in Connecticut), it sounds a little odd. I'd say "see how I do" or "see how it goes." Just curious. Maybe a possible DotD... Anyway, thanks for doing this blog - it's a pleasure to read and learn from.

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  11. Ha! I sent a letter using the phrase "please find enclosed..." yesterday. I'm American, but the recipient is (probably) British, for what it's worth. The letter was a cover letter for an application to a faceless bureaucracy (i.e. enclosed please find all the documents you require), which is about the only scenario I'd ever use the phrase. In just about any other case, and for certain at work or if I know the recipient, I'd say something like Here is ... or I'm attaching...

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  12. I've dug out my copy of Company to Company, which was (and perhaps still is) the best coursebook for teaching BrE business letters (with a sprinkling of AmE variants). Another merit is that the index in the Teacher's Book makes it easy to see what is being offered in the way of models.

    One entry in the index is for the word enclose in the materials seen by the students:
    • We enclose some of our catalogs ...
    • ... your letter of (date) enclosing ...
    • Please find enclosed a cheque ...
    • I have pleasure in enclosing our brochure ...


    There's a follow-up to the last-but-one in an exercise
    1. Read these sentences and match the words in italics with the words in the box
    f
    Please find enclosed some brochures describing our products.
    [The required answer is Here are]

    2. Now rewrite these sentences so that they sound less formal
    a
    I have pleasure in enclosing a cheque in your favour.
    e Please find enclosed our invoice

    Also in the index is enclosing details or a brochure with references to:

    • I enclose our price list and look forward to hearing from you.
    • I am, today, sending you some our brochures in a separate package. With these, I have included details of ...
    • I am pleased to enclose the application forms that you requested.
    • I have pleasure in enclosing our brochure.
    • I'm enclosing some brochures but if you'd like any more details I'd be happy to provide them


    The last example is, of course, in the section on writing to business friends.

    I'd forgotten about I am pleased... /I have pleasure... Are these used in AmE?

    These quotes are form the Third Edition. Here is a link to the Fourth Edition.

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  13. I thought of you and the 'please' discussion when I found a notice in a (UK, of course) university guesthouse bathroom reading:

    Please note
    HEATED TOWEL RAIL
    Thank you

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  14. Anonymous in NJ05 August, 2015 21:56

    The results you cited surprised me – that is, I was surprised until I recalled that the American company studied was Enron. Since Enron hasn't existed since 2004/2006 (but really, 2001-ish?), I wonder if it's a matter of changing times.

    I used "please find attached" or "please find enclosed" for more than a decade before I tired of it. I dallied with the conversation-feeling (to me, at least) "I've encloses/attached ... for your [convenience/information/etc]" The former was something I saw used in (American) business correspondence less and less as the years went on, but it wasn't something that ever truly disappeared. The latter was probably equally occasionally used.

    But then I started business school. Since taking a few business communications classes (to, as one professor explained to me, "un-learn how to write", since my previous career focussed on writing), I've started using both again, but "please find attached" gets far more mileage.

    – AiNJ

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  15. Anonymous in NJ05 August, 2015 22:09

    GuineaPiglet wrote: I have found that American's don't like saying sorry. It's a sign of failure and weakness. Apologies for minor things are "excuse me" but never "sorry".

    I think this might be off topic and, thus, against the rules, but I'm not sure that it's truly unrelated to the post, so I'll respond just in case.

    My experience has been the opposite. Although, part of my experience might jibe with your experience. I don't know if my experience jibes with that of other Americans, but I can certainly say that the adults of my childhood didn't think apologising was "a sign of failure and weakness", but they still encouraged us to not use it in certain situations.

    In cases where an adult felt that an "excuse me" was more appropriate than an "I'm sorry", they admonished us not to use the latter (I was actually scolded for using it sometimes): colliding with another pupil in the classroom when neither was watching where she walked, walking in on someone else in the loo – essentially, any situation where blame couldn't be easily assigned (although parents, teachers and other adults never actually explained this until years and years later).

    But it was never, ever about weakness; I rather think it was that they believed that saying "I'm sorry" in those situation diluted the strength of the words.

    Despite all of the admonishments, however, my go-to is still "I'm sorry". It's the same (or nearly the same; I hear the lone "sorry" a lot) for most of the people I encounter in my daily life.

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  16. @David Crosbie: Actually, Italian prego is not used in the same way. It is very often avoided, since it tends to sound a little irritating, except in signs and automated messages (attendere prego = please wait). The closest Italian equivalent to English please would be per favore. Anyway, neither prego nor per favore are ever, ever used in requests-that-are-not-actual-requests such as please find attached. Using prego in such a contest would not only be irritating, but also plain weird.

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  17. I (a 61-year-old USA-ian) am very fond of "Enclosed please find ...", and I cannot see anything objectionable in it except its unfamiliarity to those who are unfamiliar with it.

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  18. I think the apparent disagreement between AmE and BrE speakers as to whether please sounds bossy is actually about something entirely different. From the comments in this post and the linked one, it seems like BrE speakers tend to phrase requests in the imperative, adding 'please' as a softener: "Please pass the salt." Whereas AmE speakers are more likely to soften their requests by phrasing them as questions: "Could you pass the salt?" Since the request has already been softened, adding please to it runs the risk of over-softening and sounding insincere or aggressively over-polite. To an AmE ear like mine, the question-request sounds softer than the command-request (even with the please), so we end up saying "using please like that sounds bossy" -- but it's not the please that makes it bossy, it's the imperative phrasing. Whereas BrE speakers seem to be comparing "please pass the salt" with "pass the salt" and concluding (quite sensibly) that of COURSE you need to say please or else it's very bossy!

    Two possible explanations spring to mind: it could be that the two dialects seem to be in disagreement because each is comparing different things ("do X" sounds bossier than "please do X" because please is a softener, while "please could you do X" sounds bossier than "could you do X" because the please makes it excessively softened), OR it could be that AmE speakers regard phrasing as a stronger softener than adding please, and therefore prefer it, while for BrE speakers it's the other way around.

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  19. dr-tronic

    I think you're on to something, but I fear it may only expose a deeper problem — one that's vey pertinent to Lynne's research project:

    What exactly is a request?

    By almost any criterion I can think of, asking somebody to pass the salt is a request. There is no convention in English-speaking countries to pass the salt on automatically — the way some serving dishes are passed from diner to diner, say, or the way port used to be passed at certain types of in-group all-male dinners. The salt is only passed if a fellow-eater says something. And by convention, nobody utters that saying unless they wish to be the recipient. (Also, by convention, the speaker should actually want to receive the salt.) Another convention is that the person asking recognises that the person with the salt will be making a trivial but real effort — not so much the tiny physical gesture as diverting his/her attention over to somebody else's agenda. By convention the shared table is a place where everybody is supposed to be happy and cooperative with everybody else.

    So it's classic request: the speaker wants the salt, and knows that the addressee is able to pass the salt — or, theoretically, to refuse. Moreover it's a polite request, uttered in a context where social harmony is at a premium.

    From what I've read on this Board, BrE and AmE speakers have the same social instincts and linguistic habits here. We're just as likely as you to say Could you pass the salt? Would you mind passing the salt? Do you think you could pass the salt? etc. A bare Pass the salt can be appropriate — but only if the two interlocutors are on intimate terms, or if the mood at the table has become unusually relaxed and convivial. Please pass the salt is very little different. To 'soften' it, as you put it requires as minimum (I think) Pass the salt please.

    In a restaurant, most of the things we say to waiters don't amount to the same sort of request. Yes, we may request the waiter/waitress to pour something, bring something, replace something or perform some other service that isn't part of the standard routine. But ordering isn't a request for action. Rather it's a statement of our choices, which we know will be passed on to the kitchen and thus prepared for us and served to us. There's no question of the waiter/waitress refusing to take note of our choices or failing to pass them on to the kitchen. Neither in BrE nor in AmE is there any call for Do you think you could ? I wonder if I might ask ...? and other devices that may defuse social tensions. Customers have no need to acknowledge that the waiter/waitress is doing anything remotely resembling a favour. BrE please is nothing like request marker, I would say. Rather it's a demonstration signalling I'm not like those awful people who treat waiters as minions.

    Neither of these is like the acts of directing attention typified by Please find enclosed or Please be aware or Please note.

    So yes, AmE speakers may make different choices in the form and number devices used to 'soften' classic requests. But essentially AmE and BrE speakers make the same effort to be polite.

    The real differences seem to occur when there isn't really a request for action, but rather a statement of choice or a signal for directing attention.

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  20. @David Crosbie

    It is delightful when threads move into philosophy/sociology.

    Is a request something that you have the (real) option of refusing? I remember reading a discussion of people who only asked when they expected the answer to be "yes" and therefore found it very difficult to say no to people, as they assumed that the asker had a justified reason for asking for something. Whereas others thought "it does no harm to ask" and would ask for anything. As you can imagine, it was extremely discomfiting for the party of the first part to be asked for something by the party of the second part.

    I think this relates to Stanley Milgram's Breaching experiment when people asked for seats on the subway.

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  21. 'Please find attached/enclosed' is an 'apophatic' statement that precedes a list of attachments/enclosures. The 'please' is an 'apophatic' signal that you are aspiring to be polite. What do you say instead of 'please find enclosed/attached'? If you just enclose/attach the items, the recipient has no way of knowing whether he or she has received the right attachments, all or only some of them, or even of knowing they were supposed to be there at all.

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  22. Rachel Ganz

    Is a request something that you have the (real) option of refusing?

    I don't have the original to hand, but here is an account of how John Searle identified requests according to propositional content and three types of felicity conditions

    propositional content future act A of H (hearer)

    preparatory 1, S (speaker) believes H can do A
    conditions 2, It is not obvious that H would do A without being asked

    sincerity S wants H to do A
    condition

    essential counts as an attempt to get H do do A
    condition

    This account happens to be from what comes easily to hand: a book called Pragmatics. But I've seen various accounts over the years in books explaining the communicative approach to language teaching. I've even read Searle himself once upon a time. His appeal to language teachers is that he took the notion of speech act from the philosopher JL Austin and fashioned it into something language teachers had previously called functions, which can serve as language-learning objectives.

    For our purposes, the point is that those conditions would also account for a command. That's why a request needs the preparatory condition that H has a choice whether to do A. And, of course, a request lacks the condition enjoyed by a command that S has ( or rather believes that he/she has) the authority to perform the speech act.

    The role of the word please would seem to be twofold

    • to smooth out any social disharmony generated by the preparatory conditions

    • to assert the sincerity condition

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  23. Dru

    What do you say instead of 'please find enclosed/attached'?

    You say two things:

    1 In the body of the letter you write I enclose ... or the like.

    2 At the foot of the letter you write encl: and a description of the enclosure.

    If it's an email, you still do [1], changing the verb to attach. The mail software does task [2], supplying not a description but a file name.

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  24. In a formal letter, I would write "Please find enclosed..." and then, below the six blank lines you leave for your signature, and the typed name and job title below that, another blank line and then "Enc". Mind you, my secretarial training took place in 1970, which is a fair few years ago and much of what I learnt may have been rendered obsolete by now.

    As an aside, I was amused by David Crosbie's comment that "The salt is only passed if a fellow-eater says something. And by convention, nobody utters that saying unless they wish to be the recipient You see, when I was at boarding-school, back in the dark ages, you were not allowed to ask for the salt, or anything else you might want. You were supposed to be aware of what your neighbour needed, but worst case scenario, you asked your neighbour "Would you like some salt?", even if you knew they had already taken some. The convention was that they would say, "Oh, would you like some salt?" and pass it to you.... It does sound stupid now, but this was fifty years ago!


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  26. Mrs Redboots

    Your story lends credit to what might seem a strange item in the speech act analysis: the essential condition.

    Asking another girl if she wanted some salt when she clearly didn't ticks all the other boxes.

    You thought she was in a position to pass the salt. ✓

    You didn't think she'd pass the salt unless you said something. ✓

    You did want her to pass the salt. ✓

    But thanks to your your sly choice of words

    It didn't count as a request. ❌

    PS
    My spellchecker excelled itself. It didn't like something about the way I typed some salt and 'helpfully' supplied somersault.

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  27. Just popping in to say:

    Thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments and especially for the individual research into email inboxes and textbooks!

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  28. I use the passive voice for attachments: "The following documents [naming them] are attached." If a specific document has been requested, and its identity is obvious, I just write "Attached."

    The convolutions of passing the salt remind me of the way Orthodox Jews find non-Jews to do things for them on the Sabbath. Doing the act is forbidden; so is requesting that it be done. But you can say something like "If someone [did thus-and-so] he would not be sorry."



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  29. If memory serves, I remember being taught to write "Please find". I went to a good school and then studied law, although I don't think it's necessarily a legal thing. Now I'm wondering if I just sounded like an idiot all those years.

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  30. Of course, in British English, tone of voice can suggest a much more imperative meaning to both "please" and "kindly" - "I'd like it now, please" (="That's the umpteenth time I've reminded you, and I'm on the verge of getting you sacked"), or "Kindly remember..." (="Don't you know WHO I AM?!"). And as for the possible meanings of "Really..?" and variations in associated body language.......

    (PS: ID verification requires me to identify all pictures with pizza: note to Google, that is not a pizza, it's a quiche)

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  31. My mother, who was at boarding school in England in the 1920s/30s, used to tell of the exact same convention that Mrs. Redboots described. Sometimes, if the other girls at the table were being particularly dense, you would have to offer the salt (or butter or custard or whatever) to four or five of them before one of them would catch on and offer to pass it to you.

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  32. Or, of course, if your friends wished to be particularly nasty (and is there anything nastier than a 13-year-old schoolgirl?), they carefully ignored your increasingly urgent offers of salt or custard....

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  33. When sending attachments with emails, I almost always note that in the text of the email. This is for two reasons: Sometimes attachments get stripped due to large size or security issues; and sometimes when writing a long email I'll send it without actually adding the attachments (D'oh!). I don't use "please" in the phrase, though. I usually just say "I've attached document.doc with this email."

    When I was in the military and asked a subordinate to do something routine, I always said please. I dropped the please when I wanted to make it clear I was giving an order.

    Kirk

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  34. I think it's interesting to note the large number of times quizmaster William G Stewart used to use the word "please" on episodes of the British quiz show "Fifteen To One" when he was the presenting the show between 1988 and 2003. (The show has been revived recently but with Sandi Toksvig as presenter). Here's a video of one of the programmes. The questions start at about 2 mins 30 secs:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riOToI0vedc

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  35. I'm Canadian so it may not be surprising that I routinely use, in a work context, "Attached please find...." or "Please find enclosed....". And I also write, "Kindly return the documents upon execution...." At the table I would normally say, "Could you please pass the salt" or if dining with family or close friends, "Pass the salt please". When ordering from a server in a restaurant or an attendant in a store,I would always say,"Could I please have....". When I bump into someone I say, "I'm so sorry; excuse me please." "Please" is my best friend.

    It took me a little while to get used to what I perceived as the abruptness of Americans who would stop me on the street to ask a question without prefacing it with an "Excuse me" as I would and then would respond to my answer with an "OK" instead of "Thank you" but eventually I realized that no rudeness was intended and it would be silly to take offence.

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  36. My perception in a (British) work context is that "please" is tacked on to a request from a boss to a subordinate when there is to be understood that there really is no choice but to comply: a real command, in other words. Thinking about this, I believe that "please" is taught to children as the "magic word" that gets people to do what you want, and that when it is missing they do not do what you want. So subconsciously, we learn that "please" has real power. So in the workplace, hierarchical power is exerted with "please". Less intensive requests at work are couched in more roundabout language, such as "I wonder if you wouldn't mind...", "Perhaps you could...". If it then isn't done within a reasonable time, then expect the "please" form to follow in the repeated request.
    Finally, I think "Do that for me, please" is a further intensifier, adding the interpersonal element of boss-employee relationship to make that a really powerful request.

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  37. Little Jack Horner19 August, 2015 00:00

    As Maria says in The Sound of Music, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good” because I have been rewarded by accidentally finding this blog which I have found so entertaining and fascinating that I have missed a favourite television programme.

    I am British, having spent my youth in the 1950s in the north of England. I was always brought up to say Please as a simple courtesy without any particular underlying agenda. “It is just polite.” In a restaurant I would say, “Please can/could I have the ––” or I would say to a friend, “Can/could you pass the salt please?” I wouldn’t dream of saying, “Pass the salt please” as it would, to me, sound very abrupt and commanding. I would also routinely say, “Thank you” of course. If I were able to employ servants, I would say exactly the same. In a foreign country, I would at least learn to say please and thank you in the local language so I could, as a minimum, point to an item on the menu and manage (with a smile) the local words.

    A few years ago, I spent a little time learning some Spanish before a holiday in Andalucia. I was told that the Spanish used por favor very much less frequently than the British, so much so that they jokingly (I hope) refer to the English as los por favores who, they feel, use the expression unnecessarily often. I think no-one would accuse the Spanish of being discourteous.

    Have you noticed how, in prayers, one seems always to issue commands God? Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. No suggestion of Please or could you? Someone once told me that is because there is no word for please in old Hebrew. Can this be correct?

    I recall that when working in local government in the late 1950s, I was told by the chief clerk, my immediate boss, never to use the phrase Please find enclosed as it was “old fashioned.” I was told to write simply, “I enclose.”

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  38. As a child in the early 1970s in England I had several card games involving asking other players for cards that might be in their hand. If the player had what you asked for, you could have the card to add to your hand. However, the rule booklet supplied with the game made it quite clear that if you failed to say 'please', as in "Please may I have Master Bun the baker's son?", or 'thank you' on receiving it, you had to return the card as punishment for your lack of courtesy.

    I'm rather sorry now that I never played these games with any Americans as being British might have conferred an advantage!

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  39. When I started work in London in the 1980s, in a job that involved dining out quite a bit, I was told by a very posh colleague that proper etiquette dictated that one should never say thank you to waiters when they brought things to the table, or removed them. The rationale for this was that they aimed to be completely unobtrusive and so acknowledging them in any way was a sign that they had failed to meet the highest standards of service.

    I virtually never saw this happen in practice and couldn't bring myself to do it, but I wonder if it was observed by anyone, and if so until when?

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  40. Little Jack Horner wrote:

    Have you noticed how, in prayers, one seems always to issue commands God? Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. No suggestion of Please or could you? Someone once told me that is because there is no word for please in old Hebrew. Can this be correct?

    I doubt it, since the Lord's Prayer comes from the reported words of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, in the New Testament which was written in Greek!

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  41. Pineau said: "As a child in the early 1970s in England I had several card games involving asking other players for cards that might be in their hand. If the player had what you asked for, you could have the card to add to your hand. However, the rule booklet supplied with the game made it quite clear that if you failed to say 'please', as in "Please may I have Master Bun the baker's son?", or 'thank you' on receiving it, you had to return the card as punishment for your lack of courtesy"

    Hmm, we never played by those rules! We used to irritate my grandmother by saying "Have you happen to got Mr Bun the Baker?" or whoever.... we did say "thank you", though.

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  42. Narrowing it down to translations in our language, the point is that there was no word for please in Tudor English.

    The earliest use quoted in the OED is from as recently as 1771. As a request-former softening a bare imperative, it replaced the more elaborate if you please. Speaking to God, the Tudors could use We beseech Thee or If it be Thy will.

    (Yes, the King James Bible and the final version of the Book of Common Prayer were post-Tudor. But only just, and in a style that was deliberately old-fashioned.)

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  43. One use of please that I have found myself using a lot is in the response to questions.

    "Would you like a receipt?"
    "Please." (with the implied "Yes")

    I doubt this is particularly AmE or BrE, but while I still conform to most of the American thoughts about "Please", particularly in restaurants, I DO find myself saying Please quite a lot.

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  44. About your 10 September P.S.: A literal translation in Spanish would sound impatiently (or even fussily) bossy. My choice would be have been “So...could the online version be updated to this? Thanks!”
    Your most faithful humble servant.

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  45. @ Emilio:

    Would be have been? Ha! Ha!

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  46. Sorry, Lynne. This is what the sensible portion of my brain wanted to express in the first instance:

    About your 10 September P.S.: A literal translation of “So...could the online version be updated to this please?” into Spanish would sound impatiently (or even fussily) bossy. My choice would have been “So...could the online version be updated to this? Thanks!”

    Again, your most faithful humble servant.

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  47. Emilio

    Adding thanks is a dangerous strategy in English. It may come across as friendly, but there's always the danger that it may appear to ba a presumption.

    When I was a small boy, some English speakers (typically bureaucrats) still wrote Your humble and obedient servant, but this hasn't been an acceptable sign-off for half a century and more.

    The problem is that you can have too many politeness markers. Lynne's first instinct was to use what goes under the delightful term I've recently discovered a whimperative replacing an imoerative with a question form using a modal verb: Could you ... ?.

    Actually, there's nothing in BrE to disallow a whimperative followed by please. It would be unexceptional to ask Could you pass the salt please?. The problem lies, I believe, not in any linguistic rules of politeness but in the nature of the request. It's nobody's job to pass alt to a fellow diner, but it is that woman's job to maintain the website. For that added please to sound appropriate, it would be better for Lynne to preface the whimperative+please with something to mark it as a sincere request, not a disguised instruction. Something along the lines of:

    I realise it isn't part of your job but ...
    I'm sorry make extra work for you but ...
    I know it's a bore but ...
    As a special favour to me, ...


    That said, it's usually perfectly safe to add please or even thanks to a spoken request because the tone of voice identifies the utterance as a genuine request, a disguised instruction or whatever.

    So why it is dodgy to use please with Could it be updated? but fine with Steak and chips or Find enclosed ... or Pass the salt? I can only suggest that please is a risk-free marker with utterances that are unambiguous requests or unambiguous non-requests

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  48. Yes, I could see that I could put the 'please' there in BrE, but to my AmE sensibilities, that's precisely where it makes it sound bossy. It would take something that isn't a direct request and make it into one. I just couldn't bring myself to do that because of the presumptuousness.

    The presumptive 'thanks' is one that I do worry about when using it in UK. I started to write here about it, but I think it deserves its own blog post.

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  49. Lynne, I'm not too happy with please there as a BrE utterance — for much the same reason.

    To make it an unambiguous non-request (or a heavily disguised indirect request), I could replace Could it be updated? with Would it be possible to update it?

    This ploy would totally misfire with the wording Would it be possible to update it please?

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  50. I think I've come to a conclusion about please and the trouble it sometimes causes.

    Please,I now reckon, has two functions — unusually but nat always compatible.

    FUNCTION ONE (the obvious one)
    a discourse marker signalling a REQUEST (as opposed to an order, instruction etc)

    FUNCTION TWO
    a relationship marker comparable to Madam or to Dr Murphy rather then Lynne

    Please and Madam are signals of respect when addressing strangers. They contrast with signals of solidarity, of which
    • some are narrowly geographical such as love and mi duck
    • some rather gendered such as my dear (although this is going out of favour) and my friend

    No BrE or AmE speaker objects when the two functions go together in
    a respectful request to a stranger Could you pass the salt please?
    a non-threatening, well-mannered request to a non-stranger Pass the salt please

    BrE and AmE part company when an utterance masquerades as a request
    an indirect order to a restaurant kitchen through a waiter/waitress
    an alert to the recipient of a document with enclosures etc

    In these cases, BrE embraces please as relationship marker. AmE sees little use as it can't mark a request

    A speaker of either dialect may feel discomfort when the utterance is ambiguous — open to interpretation as
    • a request
    • something less challenging such as a genuine question Would it be technically possible to update the document that's currently online?
    • a deliberate fudge concealing an implicit request Is there any way that we [sic!] could get the new version up there instead?

    In the second two cases, the speaker's politeness strategy is to avoid making a request (well, avoid an explicit request). FUNCTION ONE of please would run counter to that intention.

    In these cases please is potentially unsettling because FUNCTION ONE precludes any non-request interpretation

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  51. Very useful, David. But is it really a (sincere) relationship marker--i.e. really about marking something in the relationship with the other person (e.g. 'I respect you'), or is it maybe more like an identity marker--'I'm a civil and polite person'?

    In many cases, it is used when correcting or even shaming people--i.e. disrespecting them. Of course, we can go with the 'respect marker' interpretation and then call those cases of 'mock politeness' in the service of impoliteness.

    In alerts (not just 'please find enclosed' but also the many more 'please note's and 'please be aware' and the like), the difference isn't just the 'please' but the use of an imperative at all. That is, the difference between BrE & AmE isn't 'please find attached' and 'please note' versus 'find attached' and 'note', it's the difference between marking the utterance as a directive and not marking it as such. That reminds me of someone (I think Kate Fox, but I can't find it--it was possibly in the context of talking about 'sorry') that the British often act as if they don't have the right to interact with others, and so (my words, not theirs) have to verbally mitigate the very fact of their existence and their desire to interact. Giving a directive isn't usually seen as mitigation, but it does make explicit the fact that there is an implicit directive in anything we say. So, maybe what it does in cases like 'please note' is to essentially 'claim the floor' for what follows. Rather than presumptuously assuming that the other person will listen to them, the speaker/writer calls for their attention. Sounds presumptuous/bossy in American because the addressee is claiming the authority to give the other directive. But maybe doesn't sound (as?) bossy in BrE because without it the authority to make an indirect directive is assumed? Dunno.

    It makes some sense in my head, if not in this comment! What do you think?

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  52. I think markers like please, sir, mi' duck, squire, love, etc are not themselves since or insincere but can be used sincerely or otherwise.

    Usually the addressee accepts the marker as sincerely meant; anything else would damage the smooth flow of interaction. It's possible, however, to use a relationship marker (or a better term of you can think of one) in a context where it's obvious to both parties that the speaker is not being sincere. That's how an ostensible mark of respect can be deployed as an insult.

    And yes, I suppose it's fair to say there are people who deploy respect markers or solidarity markers with less care for how the addressees might feel than how the speech pattern contribute to their persona — whether it's I'm a civil and polite person or I'm a regular guy like you. Here too, I'd say that the marker is still the same signal; it's just that the use of the marker is in fact an abuse.

    I'll have to think about Kate Fox's line on not having the right to interact. There may well be something in it, but I think that in the case of please find enclosed there's another factor at play. An important difference between I've enclosed and Please find enclosed is that the former focuses only on the writer, while an imperative has the psychological advantage that it focusses on the reader. Of course, this means that please is more than a respect marker. So here's a revised suggestion.

    FUNCTION ONE
    discourse marker signalling 'not ORDER but REQUEST'

    FUNCTION TWO
    discourse marker signalling 'not ORDER but ALERT'

    FUNCTION THREE
    relationship marker signalling respect, solidarity etc.

    A further thought on the right to interact. It's not something to have doubts about when you've already begun. The non-interacting option would be to put an enclosure in the envelope and then say nothing about it. Or perhaps the real non-interactive option is not to write in the first place. So I think Please find belongs in an interaction that's already under way.

    Please note on public notices is another matter. There I'm inclined to agree with you that it's an appeal for the attention necessary to create an interaction.

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  53. Hmm. On the postscript I'd write it as 'please update the online version to this, if possible.'

    As for original restaurant question I'd only say please if altering the item. Such as 'no mayo please' or 'please put the sauce on the side.'

    Mostly I phrase things as 'could we get a ....?' Or simply I will have the .... which I suppose is what you mean by declaritive.

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  54. I don't think I could do any kind of command, even with an 'if possible' in this case. That may have something to do with the lines of command at a university. The office staff don't answer to academics like me, they're managed by another manager, and so you never really do know if you can tell someone to do something.

    I've also probably been very influenced by friends who have worked in service parts of the university, who have very strong opinions about which academics ask nicely and which don't. Not asking nicely = presuming that it's their job to help you with your thing now. Part of that is because they are professionals with complex jobs and reasons to prioritise different parts of their job than you do, and that needs to be appreciated. Part of it goes back to the echoes of the class system (which comes up strongly in the discussion at the restaurant post).

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  55. What a fascinating thread! I think it underlines the fact that you never really know the author's real intentions unless you hear the sentence spoken and can perceive the tone and where the emphasis is placed. I am English and was brought up to say please every time I make a request and thank you upon receiving anything. My partner is American ad hardy ever does, it is enfuriating as he seems so rude and I get embarrassed by him in public. But we are both changing to meet somewhere in the middle as with so many language issues?
    As a teacher,do I say please to my pupils as a marker of respect or politeness? Since my status gives me the right to make the request then it must be politeness! The more important question is does the use of please make people in general and my students in particular, more disposed to comply with the request? That seems to depend on age, experience or level of maturity, (young children don't know the implied threats underlying the tone of voice) but surely british people generally respond better to please? No need to rely on indirect questions or use of the passive or subjunctive! Let's be clear!
    However I would still say "please find enclosed" if I wanted the person to do something with the document or it was the main reason for the communication, but. I would use "I have attached/enclosed if I had just included it for further information or non essential purposes like filing.
    Does BrE have more subtle differences like this than American??

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  56. Yes, I was sending some documents to someone the other day, and thought of this thread - I automatically wrote Please find attached, which to me is the normal and natural way of saying it!

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  57. Neither in BrE nor in AmE is there any call [when speaking to a waiter] for Do you think you could ? I wonder if I might ask ...? and other devices that may defuse social tensions.

    There is, at least for me, when asking for something off-menu. "Could I have that with toast instead of plain bread?", for example, is a true request, because I have no idea whether it will be granted. Perhaps the chef has no time to toast bread, or considers it an abomination with this particular dish. Inserting "please" before "have" would be over the top for me, but not for every American, I think.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)