I am not a native English speaker. Last week, I sent Email to my manager saying "Please, tell me the meeting date". My manager replied: You meant "Can you tell me the meeting date" So, I am not sure what is the difference! Also, I am not sure whether he means that I should be more formal? or less formal with him! So confusing!!!

  • The difference is simply that Can you [do X]? is slightly more "circumlocutory". Instead of directly asking someone to do X, you're asking them whether they are capable of doing it (with the implication that if / since they can, you'd like them to actually do it. Roundabout phrasing like this is a typical feature of polite / servile contexts, where the "junior" partner to a "conversation" tends to avoid directly stating things in case he makes mistakes and causes offence. Your manager is advising you to avoid using the explicit "imperative" form in such contexts. Aug 19, 2019 at 12:46
  • But “What is the date, please?” would not have the imperative element that @FumbleFingers warns of. Aug 20, 2019 at 1:53

2 Answers 2

  1. Tell me the meeting date.

This is not at all polite. There is no pretense of it being polite; it's an instruction.

  1. Please tell me the meeting date.
  2. Tell me the meeting date, please.

Slightly more polite, but still not generally polite. It's still obviously a directive, an instruction, and since your boss objected to it, they probably found it impolite, but given what you've written, they probably understand you're not a native speaker of English and as such aren't very familiar with formality, etc.

  1. Can you tell me the meeting date?

This is now a request, and it's more polite than sentences 1, 2, and 3.

  1. Please, can you tell me the meeting date?
  2. Can you tell me the meeting date, please?

This is even more polite.

  1. Could you tell me the meeting date?

More polite than sentence 4, a little less polite than sentence 6.

  1. Please, could you tell me the meeting date?
  2. Could you tell me the meeting date, please?

More polite than sentence 6.

That's not to say there aren't other ways to put it (even more, or less politely). I merely considered some likely alternatives while keeping the rest of the sentence fixed. Keep in mind that politeness may depend on other factors, such as context, familiarity, tone, more than simply on the content of your sentence.

Anyway, in a more formal email, I'd go with something like sentence 9 or, in general, with other such constructions:

  • Could you please tell me if there's a possibility...
  • I wonder if you could possibly...
  • Would you mind if...
  • 2
    Nice answer. In English as in many languages, the more indirect the request, the more polite it sounds.
    – Andrew
    Aug 19, 2019 at 13:39
  • I had a similar conversation about Esperanto: bonvole faru (do it with goodwill) or bonvolu fari (be so good as to…)? I believe (in my limited knowledge) that both are idiomatic, but I think the latter more polite. Aug 20, 2019 at 1:52

I'm not a native too, but “Please, tell me” is an imperative. That's what a teacher might say to a pupil: Please, tell me the answer to the question 4. Please doesn't help its being a command\an order.

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