Growing up in a strict household, I was taught to respect etiquette. I still call my elders “sir” and “ma’am” and always say thank you. But I hardly ever use the word please. I would happily ask someone “Could you close the window?”, but the request “Please close the window” sounds terribly impatient and terse.
While the word still appears in print and speech, I’m not alone in noticing that its usage—and reception—seems to be changing. What happened?
When it first entered the English language, sometime in the 1300s, the verb please was intended as a show of respect: The phrase, typically, was if it pleases youtranslated from the French you are welcome. (“And if it please thee . . . to be knyghte,” asks the honorable hunter Tristram, for example, in Thomas Malory’s 15th-century English epic Le Morte d’Arthur.) Go to Paris today, and you will find the humble you are welcome alive and well. But in English, the phrase took a turn.
By the 16th century, four words had become three: If it pleases you had slipped inside if you please. Then three became two—“I pray you have a little patience,” wrote James Shirley in his 1659 play Honoria and Mammon. Then, finally, two became one. in 1771, a London merchant wrote: “Send closed to the port office”—the first example found by The Oxford English Dictionary of the adverb, and a prime example of its graceless urgency. With each shortening of the phrase, the speaker lost some respect for his hearer and gained some respect for himself.
The abbreviated please nevertheless he lived for centuries. After I emailed psychologist Steven Pinker, who was presiding The American Heritage DictionaryThe Usage Chart before its 2018 disbandment of the adverb tracked its use over time in fiction — a rough approximation of speech. He found that from 1860 to 2012, it experienced a steady increase. cases of if you please decreased over the same period. Pinker said its rise may have reflected a trend toward “informalization”: The casual effectiveness of the adverb form may have been precisely what sparked its popularity. But in the end, he might have gotten carried away very very much in the direction of informal.
Since 2012, the frequency of the adverb in fiction has decreased. “Terms of politeness” tend to get tangled between two impulses, Pinker noted: the fear of appearing impolite and the fear of appearing like a fawn or a lunatic. “They can wax and wane in popularity when they seem to veer too far in one direction or another,” he said. Please it can straddle the line between short and crude, depending on the context. a child asking “Can I have some more sweets please?” sounds harmless compared to your boss saying “Can you have this report in my office by Monday, please?” The word tends to communicate an expectation, rather than a genuine question, and this can give it a valid edge. The please it can feel especially frivolous coming from someone in a position of power, but it can rub people the wrong way on many occasions. I, for one, cannot bring myself to call it unless I accept something that has already been offered — as in “Yes, please.”
Sometimes, please it may even indicate deliberate rudeness. “I can hardly imagine a young man saying ‘Can you please…’ except in the special stress of irritation please, implying, “I’ve asked more than enough times,” Noam Chomsky, arguably the father of modern linguistics, told me. I remembered the 90s thriller Basic Instinct. When the character Catherine Tramell tells the visiting detectives to “get out of here, please,” she sums it up: The word can brilliantly convey anger, irony, passive aggressiveness, condescension, solemnity, or despair—all without a hint of truth. courtesy.
Of course, there are many other ways to ask for something—think “Would you mind…?” As writer Choire Sicha observed in The New York Times, the request “Hey, could you…?” it is especially prevalent in an office environment. He finds that phrase annoying. on the spectrum from crt to cloying, it’s definitely closer to the latter end. Milder alternatives like these, however, may herald the near future of the polite request. Different pleasespend more than one syllable on their addressee and, following their ancestor you are welcomedon’t assume result.
Chomsky, like many others, still uses please. (“I’m an old-fashioned conservative,” he explained.) I doubt he means the word to sound anything but polite. And yet I think efforts to enforce its use are misguided: Take Amazon’s setup for its virtual assistant, Alexa, to which it responds “Thanks for asking so nicely” when kids say the “magic word,” or companies like Chick-fil-A trains their employees to use it. These measures are confusing pleasethe term, politely in general — as if it were impossible to be polite without it.
The truth is that English is a living language, always and inevitably evolving, and no one can freeze it in time. But if centuries of shortening the word have taught us anything, it’s that this progression can be awkward and its transitions awkward. Please it’s at a weird crossroads between its once-and-future significance — but I’d be glad to see it go.