‘Don’t forget your please and thank you!’ was perhaps your grandmother’s way of saying ‘try to be polite.’ Yet while ‘thank you‘ is still important to civilized discourse, I find that ‘please‘ has almost the opposite effect in American English. It can make a question sound urgent, blunt, and even downright rude. Take a simple query:
‘Can you drive me to the store?’
Now add please to the end of it …
‘Can you drive me to the store, please?’
Theoretically, there shouldn’t be much difference here. And yet, if I were asked the latter, I would wonder why that ‘please’ is tagged on the end. Did I cause offense? Is this an emergency? Haven’t I gone to the store a million times already? Fine, be that way!
I can only speculate about why ‘please’ became so blunt. It possibly turned into a misguided tool to avoid betraying one’s irritation. Then at a certain point, it may have simply evolved into a tag meant to convey urgency or annoyance. With the exception of highly ritualized ‘May I please have the …’ constructions I’ve encountered at a few dinners, I don’t know that I’ve heard ‘please’s’ polite form since I was a child.
So what has taken the place of ‘please?’ In my mind, word constructions of the following type are more common these days:
Can we go to the store? … becomes polite … Is there any way we can go to the store?
Could you stop talking to me? … becomes polite … I’m sorry. Could you maybe speak with someone else?
Pass me the salt. … becomes polite … Is there anyone who could pass me the salt?
At least this is true of my own idiolect. If I want to sound polite, I add words, words, words. ‘Please,’ on the other hand, can easily be misconstrued as frustration.
I think it’s safe to say that the irate ‘please’ has been around for some time, though. This is certainly not an entirely new phenomenon. But is the word’s more polite usage alive in any part of the English speaking world? (That’s a non-rhetorical question).