17

In India, this is used zillions of times every day especially while referring someone some task or to do favor.

Mr. Singh, I'm sending my cousin who is interested in learning guitar. As you have better contacts with musicians, kindly do the needful.

do the needful is used when we want to cut the story short. In fact, at times, we just write do the needful and the favorer understands everything!

Wikipedia says that the phrase is now obsolete and slang (this is news for me!). What are the alternative phrases I can use that perfectly fits it?

  • 2
    Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/43597/… – nohat Feb 18 '14 at 6:52
  • I wish this phrase were acceptable elsewhere! I often find myself thinking to write it in an email and having to come up with something else, but none of the other options are both as succinct and polite as this! – nxx Feb 18 '14 at 19:53
  • This is news to me - I work with some people located in India and they use this phrase in their emails. I always assumed it was just broken English, but I never mentioned it. I'd never heard of the phrase before! – Whelt May 26 '15 at 17:29
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    It's obscure to the native English speaker, and I've personally experienced it being used out of exasperation. It's a poor substitute for spelling out what one is asking for, and implies something to the effect, "I don't care how you do it, just get it done." It's an archaic expression, and has no place in modern communication. – Jim Roth Jul 19 '16 at 21:52
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This is more about culture than about fluency. Americans prefer direct requests.

Let's work with your example. A polite desi will imply a course of action and request to "kindly do the needful."

Mr. Singh, I'm sending my cousin who is interested in learning guitar. As you have better contacts with musicians, kindly do the needful.

This is well received in India, but this tends to frustrate and even confuse Americans. Most would prefer a direct request.

Mr. Singh, my cousin is interested in learning guitar. Would you use your contacts with musicians to help my cousin find an instructor?

Hearing this, an American will feel they are being treated with respect.

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    As an American, I can tell you that (until I saw this topic) I would be utterly baffled by a sentence ending with "do the needful". I would have no idea what it meant. – Catija Jul 7 '15 at 21:43
  • It's interesting how what sounds respectful and what sounds disrespectful can be switched, from one culture to another. A good reminder to try to avoid feeling disrespected when dealing with someone from a different culture. – Dan Getz Jul 11 '15 at 2:23
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As I wrote elsewhere, I'm not a big fan of "do the needful". I said:

I find it a little too condescending and dictatorial for my tastes, as though the details of what is necessary are too trivial for the speaker to even know what they are.

However, that take was rebutted by an Indian user who responded:

In Indian English, "please do the needful" is in fact the opposite of condescending and dictatorial: it usually comes after the details have been suggested or hinted at, and means something like "it is not my place to tell you how to do your job, and you are the best judge of what is necessary, so kindly help me as you see fit". That is, only obsequious letters say "please do the needful" instead of explicitly dictating the details of what needs to be done.

The consensus in the other comments there was to substitute "please take care of it/this" or "please handle it/this".

  • There's really two answers: If authorizing, then contextually you need to communicate the authorization ("please proceed" or "go ahead" etc). If not authorizing, you're requesting and as such "please take care of this" is still inappropriate. In this case, your sentence should be re-formed as a question/request instead. – inanutshellus Apr 25 '14 at 19:38
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Yes, "do the needful" is a signature Indian-English phrase. As such, when used in that context, I would not want to discourage it too much :)

You could use something like "take the necessary steps / action", "do what is needed".

I have to admit I do like the conciseness of "do the needful" :)

About it being called slang, I tend to disagree by the way. It is, as far as I know, standard Indian English (I've heard it plenty of times in a formal, professional setting).

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    How about do what's necessary? – snailcar Feb 11 '14 at 21:07
  • @snailplane exactly. This is what my client had suggested me ;) – Maulik V Feb 18 '14 at 4:42
2

I've recently come to a situation where I found a real use-case for "do the needful" in my own life and it made me understand the different contexts for its use.

The first is used for granting conditional authorization:

Babysitter: "There's no baby bottles in his lunchbox! Should I give him one of ours?"

Parent: "We're weaning him of bottles, but if he won't drink from a cup, do the needful"

Here, you're giving conditional authorization to your employee. The English corollary is "[if necessary,] go ahead"".

Parent: "We're weaning him of bottles, but if he won't drink from a cup, go ahead [and give him a bottle]."

The second usage is in situations where you are not authorizing or the request requires no conditional. In these cases, "do the needful" is essentially a request, at which point the polite corollary is would you.

To your specific example, this is what should've been said:

Mr. Singh:

My cousin would like to learn guitar and I recall you have excellent musical contacts. Would you connect me with them?

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    +1. I'd like to emphasize that last example, where the polite replacement with "would you" involves actually saying what you'd like the other person to do. I've been in many situations where I felt someone of another culture was being rude to me because they implied I already knew what they wanted me to do. (Even when you know they probably didn't intend to be rude, it still feels that way.) – Dan Getz May 26 '15 at 3:44
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In a business letter, after describing a principle of operation and an issue to be resolved or an approach to a problem, one might say "Please proceed accordingly".

In the letter to Mr. Singh seems like it is semi-personal. Based on what some of the Indian English speakers suggest, the phrase "please do the needful" encodes a fair amount of information: Mr. Singh is in a better position to help, and you don't only want him to do something to help you but proceed in a way he's comfortable with, and you'd also like that he feels good about helping you and not "prescribed to". So it is kind of a polite recognition of his status in this particular case.

Now, if we wanted to achieve a similar effect, depending on how well one knew Mr. Singh, in US English we might say (based on an earlier answer)

"Mr. Singh: My cousin would like to learn guitar and I recall you have excellent musical contacts. It would be really great (or "very nice of you", or "really helpful") if you would you connect me with them somehow."

So "somehow" is "the needful", left up to Mr. Singh to devise as he is the expert, and you are recognizing that he's doing you a favor and are appreciative.

In Canada one might say "would you kindly connect me with them?" but in US English this would be maybe a little affected, a bit too formal sounding.

2

"Would you please help me with this?" This conveys the spirit of the original insofar that it is both respectful of the time & expertise of person to whom the request is aimed while conveying none of the potential offense nor awkwardness.

1

It is a corruption of the (British) English expression, "Do the necessary." This is a somewhat lighthearted expression and should not be used in formal writing. For example, it would be OK to say, "I had drunk three pints of beer, so I stepped outside to do the necessary." It would not be acceptable to say, "When my mother passed away I asked the funeral home to do the necessary."

1

Until reading this, I always thought that "do the needful" was used because of broken English as the phrase is unfamiliar and a bit confusing to me.

Most of the time when I am asked to "do the needful," it is because someone needs my assistance. For example, I received this message:

"Hi,

To keep you informed that Password has been locked for xyz web portal. Kindly do the needful."

I understand what they are trying to say, but would expect someone who is fluent in English to write something like this:

"Hi,

I am writing to let you know that our account has been locked for xyz web portal. Please assist."

  • It's helpful to know what part of the world you're in. Please assist is understandable, but the directness might be off-putting when you're asking for help in some cultures. – ColleenV parted ways Dec 7 '15 at 22:31
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The crucial thing about this phrase is that it marks you out as Indian - it advertises your background extremely effectively.

Perhaps in the US people might find it condescending. For me in the UK I see it as just one of those cultural things - an odd and rather charming turn of phrase.

So just consider whether you want to come across as quintessentially Indian or whether you might just prefer to blend in. Both can be appropriate.

  • The issue is that, in the US, no one would understand the phrase because it is entirely unheard of for us. It's not condescending so much as it's confusing and unclear. – Catija Sep 28 '15 at 13:03

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