Words & Phrases to Use to Sound Polite

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I remember receiving a phone call from an acquaintance who said, ‘Hi, Azimah. Maaf mengganggu.’ This is Malay for ‘sorry to bother you’. 

Being in the middle of doing some work, I simply replied, ‘Hi!’

She repeated her apology, ‘Sorry to bother you’ in Malay, and then there was a split second of awkwardness before she let out a nervous giggle. Finally, I came to my senses and said cheerfully, ‘Tak ada lah! Kenapa tu?’ (‘Not at all! How can I help you?’) 

It was my fault for not saying anything else and not realising how nervous she felt.

In today’s lesson, you are going to learn words and phrases you can use to sound polite without saying sorry too many times. (We’ve talked about how to say sorry in another video called Saying Sorry and Responding to An Apology. So please do say sorry when you have done something wrong.)

Let’s start with modal verbs that are important for sounding polite. 

In terms of politeness, not all modal verbs are created equal: some are considered more formal, while some are more direct than others.

The modal verbs may and could are more polite than can, as in, ‘May I come in?’.

You should also use may only with I or we as the subject, as in, ‘May I suggest something?’ or ‘May we go out?’. Otherwise, use could. Here are some examples:

  1. Could you wait a moment?
  2. Could you repeat that, please?
  3. Could you explain that again, please?

Notice that I’ve added please at the end for that “extra” politeness.

Do you remember back in school when you had to learn how to ask for permission to go to the toilet using ‘may’? Yes, do use may instead of can for that. As in, ‘May I go to the toilet?’

But as adults, we generally do not need to ask for permission to relieve ourselves (i.e. go to the toilet). Rather, we might need to ask for the location of the toilet if we are in an unfamiliar building. Here’s a useful phrase for that:

‘Excuse me, could you tell me where the toilet is?’

(Watch the video where I share several words for toilet depending on how formal or informal you want to be.)

The modal verb would is also a more polite form of will.

‘Would you excuse me for a minute?’ versus, ‘will you excuse me for a minute?’

However, it should always be, ‘would you like’, and not, ‘will you like’:

Would you like to come in?

Would you like something to eat?

Lastly, with ‘yes/no’ questions, try using phrases containing if. Here are some examples:

Instead of, ‘Is Hassan coming?’, try, ‘Do you have any idea if Hassan is coming?’

Or, instead of, ‘Does she live nearby?’, try, ‘Do you know if she lives nearby?’

Here’s another phrase. Instead of the direct question, ‘Are they from Japan?’, try, ‘I wonder if they’re from Japan.’

Lastly, do not underestimate the power of please and thank you. It’s always polite to say them no matter who you are speaking to.

Watch the video and try the quiz towards the end!

Or let’s make my request more polite: Please do watch the video and try the quiz towards the end!

You can also listen to this session on SpotifyApple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

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Hi there!

We’re Azimah, Amnah and Aisya from Malaysia. We created My English Matters as an online platform to help people improve their English.

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