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When asking for something politely which sentence is a better/proper choice?

Could you please help me?

or

Could you help me please?

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Please Note: There may not be a definitive answer to this question, but I think it still has value. The answer may be complex, context-based, including non-verbal communication, relationship and situation between speaker and listener, etc. Each answer gives a different perspective. For this question, one may learn some good ideas by reading all the answers rather than any one.** –  CoolHandLouis Feb 28 at 1:07

8 Answers 8

up vote 6 down vote accepted

On my polite-o-meter, the two sentences score very close: "Could you help me, please?", "Could you please help me?". The former sounds more formal. Use whichever one you want and you'll be more polite than most people.

The following data is a very rough indication that "please-on-the-end" might be more common: 1

1 Google results may not be accurate at all. I will be reviewing this. Another answer suggests a different result.

Sentence structure has an impact on information emphasis:

  • Sentence length tends to require "please" to be moved to the beginning. Consider the following: "Could you help me find my light-brown work shoes that I just bought, please?" "Could you please help me find my light-brown work shoes that I just bought?" The latter introduces politeness earlier while also focusing the sentence on the important information.

    Other answers in this thread provide great analyses on formality and urgency. But length-of-sentence can be an opposing force. While "please" tends to be more formal and polite at the end of sentences, a longer sentence may be more natural sounding with "please" moved closer to the beginning. For more information, see Google Search: sentence information, clarity, and focus.

How to learn all of this?

  • There are a lot of great answers in this thread (I suggest you read them too!), but that can be overwhelming! Usage is highly dependent on context. Rather than trying to learn 1000 rules on usage, I suggest that you gain subtle usage skills naturally through observation and experience .
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Google's result estimates aren't real data. They don't even try to make them accurate. I'm afraid your 40M and 11M numbers should be discarded rather than taken with a grain of salt. –  snailboat Feb 28 at 2:19
    
Thanks for the tip I'll check it out. –  CoolHandLouis Feb 28 at 2:40

There are a lot of subtleties hidden in the different words and word orders mentioned here. Changing the place in the sentence of the word please changes its emphasis; roughly, the earlier the word comes in the sentence, the stronger the request for help. Notice RayB's point that putting please at the end of the sentence sounds more polite. This is because it's a bit less insistent.

Context is very important as well; a more insistent request for help can go with a more pressing need for it and not be impolite. If for example, a child came up to a stranger and said "Could you please help me? I'm lost." the child would probably be thought of as very well-mannered, keeping a cool head in a frightening situation. On the other hand, if a shopper asked a clerk "could you please help me?" instead of "could you help me, please?" it would typically convey a sense of irritation at having been made to wait too long. I say typically because one can always use tone of voice to change this.

Now, "would you help me, please" sounds bit less insistent to me than using could, I suppose because it's asking if one is willing to help rather than if one is able to. "Won't you help me" usually doesn't go with "please" since it is really asking if the person is unwilling to help even though he should. (Edit: I note the exception to this of "won't you pleeease, please help me" from the Beatles song mentioned in another answer. When you do use won't you please in this sense, it is particularly insistent. There's a flavor almost of begging in the song.)

A funny story comes to mind. I used to know a guy who had spent a number of years as a fisherman in Maine, and he told this story. One evening, he was in the boathouse with some of his friends, and the radio came on:

Jim?
Hey, Phil, what's up?
Not much.  You doing anything right now?
Nope, just sitting here with Joe and George.
Well, could you stop out and pick me up, please?
Sure, where are you?
About three miles out, taking on water.

The reason it's funny is because the level of insistence for help was way less than the need for it.

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+1 On this answer. I really like your analysis on context. And I'm sure you'll agree that even "Won't you please help me" expresses yet another sentiment exactly because they "don't go together" as you said. And that's a great story. The guy on the sinking boat uses the formal, cool-headed, non-insistent form of "please" because he is cool-headed and most likely has a great sense of perspective and humor about life. I learned much from your answer, thanks! –  CoolHandLouis Feb 27 at 20:00
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"roughly, the earlier the word comes in the sentence, the stronger the request for help" I don't think that's at all true. "Please could you help me?", "Could you please help me?" and "Could you help me please?" when spoken in a fairly neutral tone are all simple requests for help; when spoken with strong emphasis on "please", all can sound equally desperate. –  David Richerby Feb 27 at 23:01
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@David: Perhaps you missed "I say typically because one can always use tone of voice to change this." in my answer? (It is kind of buried in there.) I completely agree with you about the use of tone to vary the meaning here, and you have provided some useful elaborations on this point. However, I stand by my assertion that we also use word order to do the same. One doesn't preclude the other. –  BobRodes Feb 28 at 15:10
    
+1 on BobRodes positive response ("I completely agree with you..."). Good Answerists/Commenters model and encourage positive tone and civility for the community. –  CoolHandLouis Feb 28 at 21:21

Politeness is not inherent in the grammar. Politeness is an attitude implied by the speaker and inferred by the hearer, and the two are not always aligned.

The choice of which grammatical construct to use will vary across cultures and sub-cultures. In South African English, for instance, "please" is very commonly placed at the beginning of a request, and because that placement is normal, the level of insistence discussed in other answers is reduced.

The politeness implied by a South African speaker might be misunderstood as insistence by some American hearers.

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+1 This is an excellent point. Such a simple question can lead to many "opinion" answers (and it's not easy to divide opinion from "fact"). –  CoolHandLouis Feb 28 at 0:55

I personally think "Could you help me, please?" sounds more polite.

However, in this situation I would say "Would you mind helping me, please?".
In my opinion it sounds friendlier to the person you're asking.

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There are very good answers that discuss the significance of the position of please. Here, I only discuss:

  1. some basic analysis using google's n-gram viewer and COCA

  2. the shift with time of the preferred location of please (with a bonus link to song by the Beatles; credit for this link should go to Emilio Pisanty)


1. Basic Analysis using English Corpora

To answer questions like that, one could use Google's n-gram viewer. See here where I've compared three possibilities:

  1. please could you help me?
  2. could you help me please?
  3. could you please help me?

Imgur

Although all of them sound good to me, books for English language learners seem to prefer the latter.

In the comments, Damkerng T reports that similar results are observed in COCA:

  • could you please help me (6 hits)
  • could you help me please (0 hits)
  • could you help me , please (0 hits)
  • please could you help me (0 hits)
  • please , could you help me (4 hits)
  • can you please help me (5 hits)
  • can you help me , please (3 hits)
  • can you help me please (1 hit)

And the corresponding search on Goggle's n-gram viewer yields similar results:

  1. please can you help me?
  2. can you help me please?
  3. can you please help me?

Imgur

That is, occurances of all the three forms can be found, with the latter being slightly more frequent.

Also in the comments, CoolHandLouis makes a number of points about the limitations of carrying out basic searches of English corpora:

  1. "Could you please help me" may include results "could you please help me [subordinate clause]." That adds more results here.

  2. "Could you help me, please?" requires context. In spoken language, context can comes from environment. Mom carries groceries & asks hubby "Could you help me, please?" But on Internet, questions contain context: "Could you help me with this sentence, please?" So "Could you help me, please?" would be under-represented in written text and some types of corpus searches.

2. Preferred Location of the Courtesy Marker please

Fátima María Faya-Cerqueiro observes in this book that the preferred position of please has shifted with time:

"The preferred position of please by the nineteenh century was clause-initial, as it is customary for imperative constructions [...] Final position was a later development."

She argues that the courtesy marker please originated from the imperative expression be pleased to, that evolved into the imperative expression please to, and finally became the courtesy marker please.

This origin could also explain the preferred location of please in questions. One could argue that the question corresponding to the following imperative construct:

  • Be pleased to help me

would be:

  • Are you pleased to help me?

or more politely:

  • Would you be pleased to help me?

which is closer to the Beatles:

  • Won't you please please help me?
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To my surprise, I found a similar conclusion in COCA, could you please help me: 6 hits, could you help me please: 0 hit, could you help me , please: 0 hit, please could you help me: 0 hit, please , could you help me: 4 hits, can you please help me: 5 hits, can you help me , please: 3 hits, can you help me please: 1 hit. –  Damkerng T. Feb 27 at 14:35
    
@DamkerngT - The surprise may be explained as "Could you help me, please?" is more often natural spoken dialog, and under-represented in written form. Also, "Could you please help me" may include extended forms like "Could you please help me with the following question?" –  CoolHandLouis Feb 27 at 17:32
    
The Beatles were extra polite: "Won't you please, please help me?" : ) –  CoolHandLouis Feb 27 at 19:16
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I've removed this info from my answer since its more appropriately addressed here in a comment. (1) "Could you please help me" may include results "could you please help me [subordinate clause]." That adds more results here. (2) "Could you help me, please?" requires context. In spoken language, context can comes from environment. Mom carries groceries & asks hubby "Could you help me, please?" But on Internet, questions contain context: "Could you help me with this sentence, please?" So "Could you help me, please?" would be under-represented in written text and some types of corpus searches. –  CoolHandLouis Feb 28 at 0:37
    
I might suggest a switch: that primary data is the main answer and historical information is secondary answer. –  CoolHandLouis Feb 28 at 0:50

As I see it, where the please is in the sentence actually changes its meaning, ranging from a polite request to a near supplication.

  • could you help me, please? -> polite request
  • could you please help me? -> added notion of some kind of urgency (and potentially exasperation: this is typically an form you could see when asking for the second time, after having asked with the first form, e.g. could you help me, please?, and later on if you got no answer, could you please help me?)
  • please, could you help me? -> there's a huge emphasis on the please turning the question nearly into a supplication for help.

Comparing the occurrences of all three forms might give the right result only if we assume they have the same meaning, which I believe they don't.

Anyway, that's my 2c as a foreigner who learned English more in its strict older written form than in its day to day form.

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It's possible to put "please" at the start of the sentence without being at all insistent. Tone of voice is much more significant than the position of "please" in the sentence. –  David Richerby Feb 27 at 23:05
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+1 on @DavidRicherby's comment. Sentence structure may have some effect, but tone and other "non-verbal" (i.e. "non-lexical" which includes tone, volume, body language) language elements carries the bulk of the emotional/attitude informmation content. DavidR, btw, I didn't mean to offend in my comment to you under BobRodes' answer. –  CoolHandLouis Feb 28 at 19:40
    
@CoolHandLouis No offence taken! –  David Richerby Feb 28 at 22:15

I am from the US, and when I went to England I was surprised to hear people say "Please would you ..." because it actually sounded rather like begging, and I was an outsider with low status. When my Guru said it though, I thought: well, that must be the most correct way - put the politeness right at the start. English allows a multitude of forms and words, with subtle nuances that come and go in varying places over time. Sometimes errors creep in, like people saying "jealous" when they mean "envious" (they are opposites). I guess there is no substitute for paying close attention and giving people the benefit of the doubt. (Or is that a subtle idiomatic phrase?)

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In my opinion, I would say:

Please, could you help?

Although it is human nature and in the English language to soften our words with adverbs in order to appear more polite, it's up to you how you would like to use it.

Remember, you can always exercise your right to use an adverb.

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Thank you for your participation. The quality of this answer could be improved by using (1) better English grammar and punctuation, and (2) providing more detail and examples. –  CoolHandLouis Feb 27 at 21:27

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