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In French, "vous" can be used instead of "toi" for this purpose. A seemingly rude example in English is when someone wants to instruct a lawyer, and writes 'I would like to instruct you.' I recognise the legal definition of 'to instruct', but this still sounds too forceful. What are pleasant, but formal alternatives?

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You presumably know that standard English abandoned the formal/informal possibilities of you/thou many generations ago. I find this question Unclear - are you really asking for more polite forms of “you” as in the title, or are you simply asking for a different way to tell a lawyer that you want to engage his services? In which case, why? It's perfectly normal to tell a lawyer you want to instruct him, and your concept of instruct still sounds too forceful is simply a misunderstanding (perhaps based on translating from some equivalent French form?). –  FumbleFingers Aug 27 '14 at 17:11
This may be an interesting read on ELU... –  oerkelens Aug 27 '14 at 18:54
@FumbleFingers That's an unreasonable presumption. Why should a learner be aware of thou? It's perfectly reasonable to ask if English has different pronouns for expressing different degrees of respect when addressing someone; many other languages have them. The lawyer example is just that: an example asking about the appropriate way to form a polite, formal imperative. The only thing that's not clear here is whether instruct means give instructions or engage services, but in this case that doesn't make a difference to the answer. –  Esoteric Screen Name Aug 28 '14 at 3:17
At first I've read it like "More polite forms of Yo", which would be awesome. –  Stanislav Shabalin Aug 28 '14 at 5:40
@Esoteric: Check back over this OP's history of questions on ELL (and ELU). He's a Francophone with very good command of English, and frankly it's inconceivable he's not intimately familiar with the thee/you : tu/vous "discrepancy" between the two languages. –  FumbleFingers Aug 28 '14 at 13:03

3 Answers 3

I would like to instruct you is both polite and formal. Modern English has no alternate pronoun forms to denote politeness, formality or etiquette; it's correct to translate both tu and vous (and their nominative forms as well; you serves both functions) as you.

Instead, in English we can use different verb constructions to show politeness, similar to using vous + future tense for polite requests in French. This is not strictly analogous to the differences between tu and vous, but it's the closest thing we have.

And you've constructed your sentence in the polite register already. Would like is the more polite and formal version of want, and generally in English politeness and formality go hand in hand. Here are two translations for comparison. Apologies for any errors in the French; mine is extremely rusty. I also suspect my translation of instruct (meaning to issue a formal set of instructions) is quite poor, since I'd be much more likely to translate ordonner as order rather than instruct, but my French vocabulary isn't so hot. Please feel free to edit and change ordonner to the correct verb.

Je veux vous ordonner.
I would like to instruct you.

Je veux toi ordonner.
I want to instruct you.

Additionally, instruct is quite formal, but not forceful. Synonyms in this case include direct, order and command. The latter two are decidedly less polite than instruct, because these are the forceful verbs in English. Direct is just as formal as instruct and a touch more polite, but it's also slightly vaguer. If you say I would like to direct you, it might be taken to mean something like I want to guide you in a general direction as opposed to I want to give you instructions; an instruction is more specific than a direction.

If you provide a bit more context on exactly what type of instructions are being given to the attorney, I can suggest more nuanced synonyms. For example, brief may (or may not) be an appropriate choice here.

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The verb choice also matters. "I want to show you" is more common than "I want to teach you" or "I want to instruct you". "I want to show you" is more polite in that it implies that the learner is just expected to watch; the choice of whether to learn is up to the learner. –  Jasper Aug 27 '14 at 15:45
Unfortunately, "instruct"'s legal meaning is very different from "show" or "teach". The legal concept of "instruct" is dictatorial, so it is reasonable that LePressentiment picked up "rude" connotations -- even if the speaker did not intend to be rude. –  Jasper Aug 27 '14 at 15:48
I disagree that show is more polite and with your reasoning. When we say I'll show you to mean teaching, there's a definite implication that the observer needs to copy the exhibited form. It's not "up to the learner" in a way that teach is not (anyone can of course actively refuse to learn something regardless of whether it's shown or taught). The difference between show and teach is that show necessarily involves demonstration; teach may not. You're right that I've got the wrong sense of instruct though; I'll fix that. –  Esoteric Screen Name Aug 27 '14 at 15:53
What @Jasper said. Nothing in this answer addresses the highly context-specific sense of instruct = engage = hire [a legal representative], which is not in any meaningful sense "forceful, rude". –  FumbleFingers Aug 27 '14 at 17:29
@FumbleFingers you seem to be forgetting that this is a site for people who are learning English. Yes, the original sentence was properly formed in this case, but the question made it clear that the OP didn't know it was correct, and so requested instruction and more appropriate alternatives. In fact that's the standard phrasing for such a context - yes, but the OP didn't know that. –  Esoteric Screen Name Aug 28 '14 at 3:23

"You" is the polite form (equivalent to "vous").

The more familiar form (equivalent to "toi") is or was "thou", which is now archaic/obsolete.

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"You" is already the polite and formal form. Simply put You=Vous Tu=Thou, a term no longer existing and replaced by "you".

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protected by Community Aug 27 '14 at 19:17

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