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I always find it difficult to use the word "please". When you use an imperative sentence politely to a stranger, it is generally safe to use "please". For example, "Please don't smoke here." Of course, when you demand a stranger to do something, you usually don't use it. For example, "Get out!"

However, it seems to me there are cases in which you can or better omit "please" even if you mean to say it politely. For example, when you say "Feel free to do something". Am I right? If yes, what cases are they? Are there some general rules with which we can decide whether to use "please" or not? I think this is an interesting problem of the English language. Do you have any book recommendation on this subject?

Edit

Since some people seem to misunderstand my question, I will add some other examples.

Steve Jobs said in his speech at Stanford university, "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It seems to me "Please stay hungry and foolish" is acceptable but awkward.

"Have a nice weekend."

"Watch out!"

"Sleep tight."

"Take care."

Edit

I searched COCA(Corpus of Contemporary American English):

Please feel free to: 50

Feel free to: 967

  • For example, in a store you might hear, "Feel free to look around.". This does not need please because it is not asking anything. It is just giving permission. – user3169 Feb 3 '16 at 4:56
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    It may be unnecessary to say "please" when you are making demands while pointing a gun at the other person's head. But it still doesn't hurt. – Jay Feb 3 '16 at 6:12
  • I'm sorry, but "Please stay hungry and foolish" isn't a request. It's something Jobs observed and that's him telling what he observed. You should edit out that part from the original question. – Varun Nair Feb 3 '16 at 7:04
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    @MakotoKato - That's not "wishing someone well," that's warning them that there's about to be beaned in the head (or run over by a car, etc.) When I said: wishing someone well with standard verbiage, I was referring to greetings like, "Have a nice day!" or "Good morning!" or "Nice to see you!" Generally speaking, we don't add a please to such comments. – J.R. Feb 3 '16 at 12:11
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    Makoto I suggest you just keep listening to native speakers, or watching English-language movies. You will actually remember better if you hear a usage in context than just read a list. English speakers don't have a list of when to use please and when not to use it: we just use it. It is really context specific. Frankly, I close-voted this question because it is too broad and also opinion-based. – GoDucks Feb 3 '16 at 22:05
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As you acknowledge, "please" is a polite filler word.

So when is it best NOT to say "please"?

(a) If you are trying to be abrupt or rude. "Get out before I throw you out!" is more effective than "Would you please make your way to the exit".

(b) If you are trying to express urgency. Like if you know the stove is hot and see someone about to touch it, it makes sense to shout, "Don't touch the stove!" If you said, "Please don't touch the stove", it makes it sound like a mild request. The person might casually touch it thinking they're about to ask, "Oh, why not?" Arguably, in an emergency where a fraction of a second counts, the time it takes to say an extra word like "please" might be crucial.

(c) If the sentence already has other polite words. Like your example, "Feel free to look around." "Feel free" already makes the command polite. "Please feel free" is probably overkill. One polite word or phrase is normally sufficient. Unless you're desperately begging, like, "Please, if you would, if it isn't too much trouble, would you consider, maybe possibly ..."

(d) If the imperative is something that is for the hearer's own benefit, adding "please" may not be necessary, and indeed may make it sound like you are asking them to do it for your benefit. Like, "Have another piece of cake" versus "Please take another piece of cake." The first would be understood to be giving the person the option. If they don't want any more cake, they can say no. But the second implies that you want them to take the cake, like you are afraid the person who baked the cake will have hurt feelings if too little of it is eaten or some such.

  • Great explanations! – Makoto Kato May 4 '16 at 6:22
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'Please' is word that is mostly used in polite requests. You can use please almost anywhere. Say, you're angry at someone, even then you could use please:

  • Buzz off, please.
  • Please go kill yourself.
  • Please leave me alone.

So there isn't any hard and fast rule when it comes to the usage of 'please'. Then there are occasions when the use of "please" is necessary, it's not mandatory, but it should be used generally. For example:

  • Please remain quiet.
  • Please don't smoke here.
  • Please come here.

These sentences all include a request to the listener to do something. Now, if the listener thinks your request is too harsh, he may not consider listening to you. That's why you add a "courtesy" factor to your sentence.

The main purpose of the word "please" is to add a respectful and polite note, so as to make the listener feel good. It is always good to be polite to another person, especially a stranger. There are few limits to the use of "please"; however, you must be very careful that you don't overuse it and sound too cheesy. Nobody listens to somebody who is way too polite, even in this harsh world. Try to limit the use of "please" and use it the right amount of times. You'll get a hang of it once you start using it extensively.

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    "Please feel free to look around" is perfectly acceptable and unquestionably polite. – Ast Pace Feb 3 '16 at 5:53
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    @MakotoKato, you cannot assume one is better than the other here. Using 'please' increases the politeness factor of the sentence. You could either say "Please feel free to look around" or "Feel free to look around". Both these sentences are pretty polite and you could use either of them. Having said that the sentence is polite enough to start with, you could even omit the 'please' without it sounding impolite. – Varun Nair Feb 3 '16 at 6:38
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    @J.R, that is true. Although the salesperson may appear desperate to us, he over uses 'please' to make him sound super polite. It sounds cheesy, to us because we oversee his desperation. – Varun Nair Feb 3 '16 at 9:56
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    @VarunKN - True – but that contradicts the premise of your answer: IMO, you can never be too polite. In fact, you can use ‘please’ anywhere. If you use the word too often by inserting it unnecessarily, there might be some diminishing returns: it might come off as desperate, mechanical, awkward, unnatural, forced, or insincere. – J.R. Feb 3 '16 at 9:58
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    All right. I'll make suitable edits. I didn't think of it that way. Thank you so much :) – Varun Nair Feb 3 '16 at 10:02
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I have a different take on this from the other commenters. Putting aside "watch out" and the Steve Job quote for the moment, the other examples you cite, while expressed with the imperative, do not represent a demand, but rather a wish or hope by the speaker, e.g., "(I hope you) have a nice weekend" or "(I would like you to) feel free to look around." Steve Jobs is not issuing a demand, but offering advice: "(I advise you to) stay hungry."

You can drop the "please" from "Watch out!" because you are being playful (said while smiling), because of urgency (it'll be too late if you take time to say please), or because you are angry or serious (not trying to be polite).

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