“Thanks, Grandpa Warren!”
I said this to one of my college professors at the end of class one day.
Yes. My college professor.
We both stopped for a moment of uncomfortable silence. Professor Baker was one of my favorite professors, and my friends and I sometimes called him “grandpa” affectionately.
However, saying it to him was a different story.
I apologized and called him by the correct title, then ran out of the classroom.
In the best-case scenario, using informal English at the wrong time can be uncomfortable. In worst case scenarios, using impolite English could impact your job or your grades.
When you’re learning English, it’s important to also learn that English has formal and informal uses. Learn when to use polite English to avoid uncomfortable situations and you’ll be more successful in academic and business settings.
And don’t worry! We can help you learn polite English so you don’t make the same mistake I did.
Polite English: Does It Really Matter?
Why do you need to learn polite English?
Using formal or polite English is a sign of respect. You should use formal English when you’re at work, at school or meeting new people.
This will help you avoid offending anyone. You’ll look more professional and caring.
Informal English in formal settings often sounds rude or arrogant (too proud). In contrast, polite English will make you seem more likeable and may lead to more success in school or at work.
It’s also important to learn polite English if you’re traveling to an English-speaking country. You don’t want to offend people during your travels!
Practical Ways to Learn Polite English
So, how exactly can you learn polite English? You might know some basics, like saying “please” and “thank you,” but there’s more to being polite than that.
You can start by learning from my mistake. If someone has a title, like Professor, Doctor, Mr., Ms. or Mrs., always use their title! In a workplace or when talking to someone of authority, you should never use their first name unless they ask you to.
You can also practice polite English by watching videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.Each video features native English speakers, so you’ll learn English as it’s really spoken. To practice your polite English, look for videos that take place in business or academic settings and pay attention to how the characters talk.
Since each FluentU video comes equipped with interactive subtitles, you can follow along as you watch. Even beginners can enjoy FluentU! Check out the free trial today.
Additionally, you can learn more about polite English from the FluentU YouTube channel, where there are clips explaining the proper ways to address people in formal settings and more.
Subscribe to FluentU on YouTube for more content on formal and polite English.
You can also work on your polite English by watching movies and TV shows that take place in an office or school setting. Some great examples to watch are:
These movies and shows are fun to watch but will also help you learn. Pay attention to when characters use formal speech and when they use informal speech. It might be helpful to write down who they’re talking to and where they are when they use formal speech.
Finally, you can learn polite English by listening to other people in your workplace or classroom and seeing how they talk.
We’ve also done some of the work for you by collecting some tips and tricks for making informal phrases sound more polite. Take a look at the list below and practice making your own sentences sound more polite.
You might also learn some new English grammar tricks along the way!
Mind Your Manners: How to Be Polite in English Using Grammar Tricks
Here are seven ways to use grammar to sound more polite and respectful when talking in English. These tips and tricks will allow you to survive in any English social situation!
We’ve included lots of examples to help you practice.
1. Use Questions Instead of Statements
Instead of telling people to help you with tasks, you can turn your statement into a question. Make sure that you’re giving the other person the chance to say no.
Using questions makes you sound nicer and more considerate (thoughtful and nice). Even if you need something done right away, making it a question will make the other person more willing to help.
Instead of: Finish the presentation.
Say: Can you finish the presentation?
Instead of: I need help with this assignment.
Say: Will you help me with this assignment?
2. Use Vague (Unclear) Language
You can come off as sounding impolite if you’re too direct. Instead, you can say things in a way that sounds more flexible. Do this by softening your language.
People will usually understand the details even if you use vague (unclear) terms. Here are some examples.
Instead of: Meet me at twelve o’clock.
Say: Meet me around lunch time.
Instead of: It’s cold, turn up the temperature.
Say: I’m kind of cold. Would you mind if I turn up the temperature just a little?
3. Add Some Explanation
When you’re communicating at work or school, it’s often a good idea to include explanation. If you’re asking someone to do something for you, or explaining a problem, people will feel better if they know a few details.
You can use English words and phrases like because, so, therefore or that’s why… to add your explanation.
Instead of: Finish this presentation by tomorrow.
Say: The buyer is coming tomorrow, so I’d like you to finish the presentation by then.
Instead of: I didn’t want to go to your party.
Say: I didn’t want to go to your party because I was really sick.
4. Use Modal Verbs to Soften Requests
I already mentioned that using questions is more polite than using statements. However, questions can be made even more polite with the use of modal verbs.
Modal verbs, such as would, could, will, can, should, must, might and shall are often used in formal speech. When in doubt, use a modal verb to make any question or statement sound more polite.
Instead of: I want the stapler.
Say: I would like the stapler.
Instead of: Let’s get dinner.
Say: Shall we get dinner?
5. Use the Passive Voice
When something goes wrong in a professional setting, the passive voice becomes very important. The passive voice is a way to avoid naming a subject.
This is great for polite English because you can address an issue without putting the blame on anyone in particular. It’ll save you from sounding mean.
Instead of: Jonathan gave me the wrong information.
Say: I was given the wrong information.
Instead of: Sally broke the printer, so we can’t make copies.
Say: The printer was broken, so we can’t make copies.
6. Switch to the Past Tense
Another way to make your English more polite is to switch to past tense. When you’re using the verbs “want” or “need,” it’s more polite to use past tense than present tense.
Instead of: Do you want coffee?
Say: Did you want any more coffee?
Instead of: Do you need anything else?
Say: Did you need anything else?
7. Use Common Polite Phrases
Grammar tricks are great, but sometimes, all you need to know are a few common polite phrases.
As you study English (and especially if you immerse yourself in English), you’ll learn more and more common phrases that people use to be polite.
Here are a few phrases you might use in a formal environment. These are great for when problems arise and you need a tactful (not rude) way to address the situation. These phrases are recognized as being polite while still getting the point across.
Instead of: I already told you this.
Say: As I mentioned previously…
Instead of: This is wrong.
Say: This could use some improvement.
Instead of: You must do this.
Say: Thanks in advance for your help!
Instead of: I don’t want to do that.
Say: Thanks, but I’d rather not.
Now that you’ve spent some time studying polite English grammar and phrases, you’ll probably start to notice polite English everywhere. Pay attention to how people talk to their friends and how they talk to their coworkers or their boss.
Polite English is everywhere. We use it when we talk to people at work or at school, but also when we’re talking to the bus driver or the server at a restaurant.
Take some time to practice your polite English so that you’ll be ready to succeed in any formal setting!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.