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Alex80 Oct 18th, 2019 07:19 am

Polite Requests
Hi, everyone!
" Would you tell me how to get to the mall?"
Can I use "would" instead of "can" or "could" ? Is it grammatically correct ? Why? Or why not?
Thanks in advance.

susan53 Oct 21st, 2019 11:09 am

Re: Polite Requests
Yes - all three are possible. It's nothing to do with grammar but a matter of meaning.

"Can" expresses possibility, so "Can you tell me..." just means "Is it possible for you to tell me..."

in the same way you might use Will - do you remember in mt answer to your previous query i talked about Will expressing volition (willingness to do something) ? So the following would be possible :
A : Sorry, I can't come with you tomorrow - I've got another appointment at that time.
B: Oh never mind. But will you tell me how to get there? I don't know that area.

B is really asking "Are you willing to tell me..."

Now it gets more complicated: Can and will are both first form verbs which have second form equivalents - could and would. Traditionally the second form has been called the "past" tense. But expressing past events is only one of its uses and the label is therefore misleading.

As Lewis points out in his book The English Verb, the function of first form verbs is to express "here and now reality". That's obvious in examples like I live in Milan / I can't ski / It's raining!

Second form verbs on the other hand express "distance from here and now reality". This may be :

a) distance from "now" - ie our traditional "past" : I lived in London as a child / I could ride when I was seven / I didn't go because it was raining

b) distance from reality - ie a hypothetical or imaginary event : I wish I could ski! / Imagine you lived on Mars. What might your life be like? / If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

c) Psychological distance. Compare the difference in tone (and therefore psychological effect) between a) Hi John - I want to speak to you for a moment and b) Hi John, I wanted to speak to you for a moment. The use of the second form makes it more polite - because distanced from "here and now reality" and therefore more indirect.

The same is happening with the differences between:
Can you tell me...
Could you tell me ...

Will you tell me...
Would you tell me...

As almost always with verbs, grammar is unimportant. It's the meanings they express which determine which form a speaker chooses to use.

Hope that clarifies.

fface Oct 22nd, 2019 07:41 am

Re: Polite Requests

Quote Alex80 (Post 88829)
" Would you tell me how to get to the mall?"

Hi susan,

A: Would you tell me how to get to the mall?
B: Yes, I will/would be happy to.

What's the difference in meaning between 'will' and 'would' in B's answer above?

Thank you very much for your help!

susan53 Oct 24th, 2019 03:08 am

Re: Polite Requests
I talked above about the use of will/would to express volition. The other use is prediction.
Eg: John'll be lying on the beach at the moment makes a prediction about a present event (John lying on the beach); I'll see you tomorrow makes a prediction of a future event (seeing the person tomorrow); Mary will have arrived by now makes a prediction of a past (Mary having already arrived).

As I said before the second form of the verb makes it more "distant" - ie less direct psychologically - and therefore more polite. It's used in contexts where it's necessary to "save face"

So the literal meaning of both is "I predict my happiness if I help you", with would making it less direct in tone than will.

However here,
a) the literal meaning is largely irrelevant : the phrase is a conventional acceptance formula
b) As it expresses a concept that's going to be pleasing to the listener in any case, the use of the less direct form would isn't essential in terms of saving face. Again, it's just a conventional formula.

So in the context of using the phrase to accept a request there's no difference in the effect on the listener at all - the two are interchangeable.

fface Oct 24th, 2019 07:33 am

Re: Polite Requests

Quote susan53 (Post 88840)

As I said before the second form of the verb makes it more "distant" - ie less direct psychologically - and therefore more polite. It's used in contexts where it's necessary to "save face"

Hi susan,

Could you please tell me how to use 'would' in a context where it's necessary to "save face"?

Thanks again!

susan53 Oct 25th, 2019 04:38 am

Re: Polite Requests
Any time when what is said is potentially a cause of embarrassment for the listener. Eg a request, where they might be "pushed" into having to refuse. Small requests are less likely to be refused and therefore don't need such "careful" handling :
A : Brian, can you lend me €2 ? I want to get a coffee from the machine and I don't have any coins.
The same is true of the refusal:
B: Sorry, neither do I. Try asking John.
Neither person is "threatened" by either the request or the refusal and both can be made directly without either person losing face.

But "large" requests are tricky, and the request/reply forms have to become correspondingly more tentative:

A : Brian I'm sorry but I have a big favour to ask. The thing is... (= pre-request sequence "warns" the listener that a problematic request is coming, which allows them to mentally prepare)
.... I've got to pay my rent tomorrow and I don't have any money left. (Explanation of situation - again "prepares" the listener for what's coming)
Would you mind awfully lending me €500 till Friday when I get paid? (Request phrased much more tentatively, by asking about the listeners hypothetical displeasure at the idea of the request)
B : I'm really sorry Anne... (extended apology to warn the listener of the coming refusal and "soften" it)
... I would love to help but... (expression of hypothetical willingness followed by "but", again to warn the listener that a refusal is coming and to "soften" it.)
I'm afraid that ... (another apology =more warning and "softening")
I can't. (the refusal itself)
I don't have the money (Explanation to justify the refusal and emphasise that it's not a personal rejection)

Compare that with the following - which would be much more "threatening" to both parties :
A : Brian, can you lend me €500?
B : No.

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