Saying please and thank you

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/11/06 16:31 -05:00, original URI:

Saying please and thank you is something that is taken for granted here in the USA and other places.

I remember being struck as a tenager by Jonathan M. Ford's take on such terms, through the eyes of a Klingonaase captain:

The Admiral got up from his chair. "Another?" he said, pointing at Krenn's glass.

"Please," said Krenn. He had had a hard time getting used to the word. But after a day on the Starbase, Krenn realized that the Humans used it continuously, across all levels of authority, for requests of any or no importance: the word simply had no meaning.

And then again a few pages later:

"So you were just following orders?"

"Do officers of the Federation not follow orders?"

Whitetree leaned forward, about to say something, then he sat back slowly. His expression had changed wholly, though the shifts of flesh were small. "I'm . . . sorry, Captain."

Krenn had heard that word too: it seemed to have more of its meaning left than please did. And, watching the Human, Krenn thought he intended that it should have meaning now.

I was thinking about this last week while I was staying in a hotel and noticed once again that on ordering room service that a 17% gratuity was pre-calculated as a part of the bill (and of course there was an additional place for a tip if I wanted to write one in).

I was also thinking about time I spent in Ireland this Summer where the service in several restaurants was terrible and tips were almost never left by people. It is easy to hypothesize about the connection, though I doubt that the service for an institutionalized tip is any better (I was honestly not even sure that what the hotel called a gratuity even went to the employee or not; I also was not sure how best to find out the truthful answer on the topic, and never have).

And I was thinking about it again a few days ago when my sister-out-law Jenny was speculating about the strange interactions with a cashier who says thank you when you pay and then you say thank you for the change -- there is not much time for more than that (without holding up the line!) and how truly sincere is it when it is a mechanical part of a transaction, no matter how polite everyone involved is?

So why did the word please seem to have no meaning to someone who was new to the language (well, ignoring the fact that it was obviously fiction, of course!)? Obviously the fact that it is used so often tends to water down the meaning, until it is almost brought down to the level of a particle in English -- a sound that you say at certain times because it is sort of expected.

I stopped using the word please for the most part except when it is emphasized as a point of sarcasm. I joked with people that saying please in this context anticipates that something will be done without it happening, whereas saying thank you in a warm tone may make it clear that it really is appreciated (and is most commonly said after something is done anyway). But under the joke was the serious notion that there is really no way to impart meaning into the word please without implying that you think someone might not do what you are asking. And how often will that truly happen?

Now of course thank you has its own watering down that happens, but not as much as please, in part because you can say it with some feeling (kind of like I'm sorry, now that I think about it). You can, in a sense, impart some pragmatic content to your words with your tone of voice -- something that may be implied in words that are read, depending on the circumstances being described.

So, according to, the linguistic meaning of the word particle is:

  1. An uninflected item that has grammatical function but does not clearly belong to one of the major parts of speech, such as up in He looked up the word or to in English infinitives.
  2. In some systems of grammatical analysis, any of various short function words, including articles, prepositions, and conjunctions.

I think it is easy enough to at least consider that most inflections of please might be considered particles now.

The most ironic part for me was how in Hebrew, the same word (בבקשה) is used for both please and thank you. I have not really tried too hard to figure out what that means, though there are other items in the Hebrew language that have similar simplifications (there are fewer prepositions, for example -- you can often tell if someone is still translating in their mind from Hebrew to English if they confuse in and on, for example). But with בבקשה (b'vakashah) I wonder if Hebrew has made it less of a particle than it seems to have become in English....


This post brought to you by "ב" (U+05d1, a.k.a. HEBREW LETTER BET)
When used a prefix to a word in Hebrew can mean either in or on, making some George Carlin jokes much less understandable in Hebrew (e.g. "Let the daredevils get on the plane; I am getting in the plane!")

# ChaimS on 6 Nov 2005 4:43 PM:

It can also mean "No Problem" or "Go ahead"

# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Nov 2005 4:47 PM:

Hello Chaim,

So, do you think it has become a particle in Hebrew? Is it said like one of those thoughtless words that you just say? Or has it retained meaning in Hebrew?

# Doug on 6 Nov 2005 5:00 PM:

Please Michael,

Please and thank you are like the computer handshake signals that keep a transmission going. Without the ACK coming back, you wouldn't be sure if you should continue. These words are the header and footer of our speech packets.


# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Nov 2005 5:07 PM:

Hi Doug --

Of course there is a Japanese particle that has exactly that same purpose, so you may be proving my point for me that it has lost most other meaning!

# Zach Glazer on 6 Nov 2005 5:08 PM:

<P>People from Cincinnati have an interesting use of the word "please", then use it in situations where "excuse me?" would be more approrpiate. For example:</P>
<P>Person A: "Mumble Mumble Mumble"</P>
<P>Person B: "Please?"</P>
<P>Person A: "Sorry - Where is the restroom located"</P>
<P>Person B: "Oh - its right over there"</P>
<P>This situation played out humourously, when my brother and his friend came to visit me at school, and his friend attempted to order a diet coke...</P>
<P>Guy "I'll have a diet coke."</P>
<P>Waitress (who did not hear him correctly) "Please?"</P>
<P>Guy (chastised for poor manners) "I'll have a diet coke, please."</P>
<P>good stuff.</P>

# Anonymous on 6 Nov 2005 5:25 PM:

I'm a Scandinavian in the US and I'm sometimes worrying that people will think I'm impolite because I have a really hard time figuring out when to use the word "please". The concept does not exist in scandinavian languages! We sometimes use "thank you" where an american would use "please" but most of the time it's just silent and implied.

# David B on 6 Nov 2005 5:32 PM:

Reminds me of my time as a busboy with some Serbs in a London restaurant, who would look disdainfully at me when I used "please" and "thank you" when working with them. Eventually they began to use these pleasantries, and I started dropping them...

# Nicholas Allen on 6 Nov 2005 5:40 PM:

'Please' has a lot of idiomatic usages but I don't think it functions like a particle. It commonly appears in set phrases for polite speech forms. Particles generally modify the function of nearby words while please modifies the tone of the sentence.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Nov 2005 5:58 PM:

Hi Nicholas --

Not sure how the Japanese particles fit there, simce some have nothing to do with surrounding words -- sometimes there are none! And in those cases the particle acts like a "yes, continue" which entirely matches if someone is pouring coffee and you say "please" to get them to pour yours....

# Dean Harding on 6 Nov 2005 6:23 PM:

I think it's quite different in America than it is here in Aus. When I went to the US a few years ago, at first I was quite impressed with how polite everybody seemed to be (then again, I was in Minnesota, which is supposedly famous for it's "Minnesota Nice") until I realised that it was just automatic for everbody.

Once I came to the conclusion that everybody was so polite just because that's how they were to everyone, it just made all conversations so *impersonal*. Like I was talking to a robot.

Also, in Australia, we don't have this idea of "compulsory tipping". If you don't do a good job, you don't get a tip! I don't mind giving a tip for someone who goes out of their way to make my stay or my meal extra special, but if you're just doing your job why should I give you extra money? My boss doesn't give me a tip for coming in to work every day, so why should I give a complete stranger one for doing the same thing?

# Nicholas Allen on 6 Nov 2005 6:42 PM:


Is there a specific particle you have in mind? The ones that I can think of that work as sentences imply the use of nouns and verbs that the particle modifies.

(This is not to say that Japanese and English particles even HAVE to work the same way. The two languages have different grammars and we merely reuse grammatical terms for concepts that seem similar. That doesn't mean the concepts are the same. For instance, you can say that Japanese has tenses and transitive verbs but these concepts are not 100% identical in function to the concepts with the same name in English.)

# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Nov 2005 6:51 PM:

Hi Dean -- sounds like Steve Buscemi's opening diatribe in Reservoir Dogs! I love it!

Hi Nicholas -- I was mainly thinking pf particles like ne in Japanese, but there are several others. It is a topic which probably deserves its own posting(s), truth be told. :-)

# Marvin on 6 Nov 2005 7:12 PM:

You misspelled בבקשה

# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Nov 2005 7:28 PM:

Whoops Marvin -- corrected now. Thanks. :-)

# Dean Harding on 6 Nov 2005 8:06 PM:

> sounds like Steve Buscemi's opening diatribe in Reservoir Dogs! I love it!

Hehe, well they don't have to be *that* nice to get a tip from me... but yeah it does sound like that :)

Oh, and another thing I don't like is where they pool all the tips and share them out at the end of the night. If I give someone a tip, I give it to *them* - not to the person waiting tables at the other end of the restaurant...

Ah well, tipping is a sensitive topic for me :) I just came back from Ireland and we had this rather unpleasant taxi driver... anyway, once we got out we pretty much counted out the pennies of the fare so that he wouldn't have to give us change. Then he goes "are you guys Australian?" and we reply "yeah we are, why do ask?" and he says "because Australians never tip!" How rude!

# LarryOsterman on 6 Nov 2005 8:25 PM:

Speaking of Japanese, have you considered the etymology of the phrase Arrigato and the social ramifications of that etymology?

# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Nov 2005 8:36 PM:

I have heard the theory that it is based on Portuguese but I had trouble swallowing that one when I heard it. It looks like it is not in that list of Japanese words that are definitely from Portuguese lsited at so I am guessing that it isn't true.

It would be interesting if it were, tho....

# Marvin on 6 Nov 2005 9:30 PM:

Actually George Carlin is untranslatable for another reason. In Hebrew you literally "raise to the plain" (לעלות למטוס) so either "in" or "on" will not be appropriate. As for ב prefix it always means "in" in the sense "being inside" and never "on" in the sense "on top of". It is English that is horribly confused between "in" and "on". (Just kidding of course. Most auxillaries are just conventions that had long ago lost most of their original meaning.)

# Mihai on 7 Nov 2005 1:18 AM:

One of the first impressions when I first arrived here was that “everybody is nice and friendly.” After living here for a while, this changed and I know this is mostly “robot talk” and when I checkout from Albertson and they ask “how are you” they don’t care at all. But if I go somewhere else (i.e. New York) I have the feeling of “rude” if it is missing.

Same with the tip: it was a reward for someone being more helpful than what is expected. But because “when in Rome, do what the Romans do” principle, I have learned to tip, when and how much.
But once in a while I still give a tip smaller than the norm to show that I was not happy with the food cold and late. So I find “pre-calculated gratuity as a part of the bill” revolting when it happens. I feel like someone put his hand in my pocket.

# John Walker on 7 Nov 2005 1:41 AM:


# Centaur on 7 Nov 2005 1:05 PM:

Speaking of Japanese, すみません (sumimasen) can, depending on the context, mean “I’m sorry” or “please” or “thank you”.

# Heath Stewart on 7 Nov 2005 2:20 PM:

Growing up in the Midwest saying "please" and "thank you" were the norm. On a trip to the East coast when I was in high school several of us always said "thank you" and many people stared at us like we were speaking in some alien tongue or were just surprised that people remember those two words.

Many times I've seen at least "thank you" put smiles on people's faces, like thanking a waiter or waitress at a restaurant.

# Ben Bryant on 7 Nov 2005 4:29 PM:

It is incorrect to say "thank you" is "watered down" when in fact it is super-charged with all sorts of meanings based on tone and timing (there is even an impact when it is left out). An example of a watered down word is the way a Politician might insist that it was a "thorough" investigation into the possible misdeed. When the word investigation seizes to exist without the prefix "thorough," then you know the thorough part is losing its meaning.

# Mike Dunn on 7 Nov 2005 8:48 PM:

There's also kudasai in Japanese (ください or 下さい) which you can often find in written Japanese instructions. I usually see it translated as "please" but it gets used if the listener is being asked to do anything, no matter how small. Even a routine instruction like "take part A from the box" can have a kudasai on the end, which isn't a situation that calls for a "please" in other languages.
I don't know Japanese well enough to know if this is just a super-formal mode of address, or some special written convention (I can't recall hearing Japanese speakers employing kudasai much).

# josh on 7 Nov 2005 11:48 PM:

Japanese just has a lot of "politizing" words. And that's on top of multiple polite forms for verbs. Never mind another post, there's enough for another whole blog there.

# Jonathan on 8 Nov 2005 7:01 AM:

I this it is appropriate to mention a McDonald's commercial that ran in Israel not long ago. It was a recreation of the Pulp Fiction McDonald's dialog:

Jules Winnfield : So in Israel you can walk into a McDonald's and say "Can I have a McShawarma, Please?"
Vincent Vega: That's right. (pause) But they don't say "Please" in Israel.
Jules Winnfield: (laughs)

# Audie Ingalls on 13 Feb 2008 6:21 PM:

My comment is that I cannot get my E-mail, and I ask that someone PLEASE clear up the problem. And I THANK you for making it possible for me to get my E-mail.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 13 Feb 2008 7:03 PM:

I have no idea who you are or how I could help since I am not involved in any email program either on the development side or the account side.

Beyond politeness, there is also appropriateness (asking someone who is able to help?).


# S.C. on 4 May 2009 8:03 PM:

I have come to learn that both please and thank you are used incorrectly. I do not thank those that are doing their job. They chose that job for one reason or another. I may choose to celebrate a job well done. ie. "that was excellent service, the best I have encountered"...."honey that was a very tasty lasagna"..."great job on setting the table Brittany, I love what you did with the napkins.

The over use of please....its begging. ie. a boss says to his employee "will you please take these to Fed Ex"....hello? why does one have to beg an employee to do his job....clean it up. "paul, these packages need to be at Fed Ex before 2 pm".

Thank yous need not to be ignored as well....when someone gifts you or does a favor for you...then by all means thank them kindly!!!

# Christina on 28 Aug 2009 5:03 PM:

I found your site from a google search for "please and thank you" and just had to chime in.

I think that using the word "please" has become such an automatic thing, that to NOT use it comes across as a deliberate insult, whether it's intended that way or not.

For example, I am an operator on a telephone switchboard for a large company.  When someone calls in and simply announces a name (for me to connect them to) it just sounds really rude.  However, if they say "[insert name here], please." it sounds so much better, even if spoken in the same tone of voice.  

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