Could you read this blog post, please?

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was polite requests and responses, which reminded me of an incident which happened when I was teaching English in Korea in 2006-2009. I didn’t post it on my travel blog at the time or even record it in my diary, for no particular reason.

For part of that time I taught at a government high school. The students had varying levels and interests in learning English. One day I introduced the grammar or vocabulary point, set the students going on the practice task and wandered round checking their progress.

One student was sitting by herself, not doing the task and instead applying copious amounts of makeup. I asked, “Could you please put your makeup away and do your work?”. She smiled sweetly and continued applying her makeup. 

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said, “Please put your makeup away and do your work”. She replied in Korean, so I said “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean”.

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said “Put your makeup away and do your work!”. She looked at me, smiled sweetly and said

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak English”. Perfectly.

Overall, the most useful construction is “Could I/you V … (please)”, but there are many more. The book included “Do/would you mind if I V …?” and “Do you mind Ving …?”. To me, these are problematic because many people switch no and yes. Strictly speaking, the “correct” response is “No” – “No, I don’t mind if you V” and “No, I don’t mind Ving”, but many people say “Yes”, as if to say “You may V” or “I will V”. When someone asks me this, I more often respond “That’s fine” – “Do you mind if I sit here?” “That’s fine” – which doesn’t actually answer the question.

Some questions require linguistic cooperation. The answer to “Do you know the time?” or “Can/Could you tell me the time, (please)?” might be a plain “Yes” or “No”, but this is not cooperative. Instead of a plain “Yes”, linguistic cooperation requires actually telling the time. Instead of a plain “No”, social politeness requires at least “sorry” and maybe some explanation, or possibly even a guess. 

Beggars sometimes ask me “Can/could you spare a dollar?”. Strictly speaking, the answer to this is “yes”. I can/could spare a dollar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to. I usually say “Not today, thanks”, which isn’t very cooperative for a number of reasons.


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