How Please Stopped Being Polite

The phrase if it please you has been shortened and shortened over time—until it’s become more brusque than courteous.

The word "please" in cursive script on a white background, pierced by nails poking through
Matt Chase / The Atlantic

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Growing up in a strict household, I was taught to honor etiquette; I still call my elders “sir” and “ma’am,” and I always say thank you. But I almost never use the word please. I’d happily ask someone “Could you shut the window?,” but the request “Please shut the window” sounds terribly impatient and terse.

Although the word still appears in print and speech, I’m not the only one who’s noticed that its usage—and reception—seems to be changing. What happened?

When it first entered the English language, sometime in the 1300s, the verb please was meant as a display of deference: The phrase, typically, was if it please you, translated from the French s’il vous plaît. (“And if it please you … that I may be made knyghte,” asks the honorable huntsman Tristram, for instance, in Thomas Malory’s 15th-century English epic Le Morte d’Arthur.) Go to Paris today, and you will find the humble s’il vous plaît alive and well. But in English, the phrase took a turn.

By the 16th century, four words had become three: If it please you had slipped into if you please. Then three became two—“Please you to have a little patience,” wrote James Shirley in the 1659 play Honoria and Mammon. Then, finally, two became one; in 1771, a London merchant wrote, “Please send the inclosed to the Port office”—the first instance found by The Oxford English Dictionary of the adverb, and a prime example of its graceless urgency. With each diminution of the phrase, the speaker lost some regard for his hearer and gained some regard for himself.

The shortened please has nevertheless lived on for centuries. After I emailed the psychologist Steven Pinker, who chaired The American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel before its dissolution in 2018, about the adverb, he tracked its use over time in fiction—a rough approximation of conversational speech. He found that from 1860 to 2012, it enjoyed a steady increase; instances of if you please declined in the same period. Pinker offered that its rise might have reflected a trend toward “informalization”: The adverb form’s casual efficiency may have been just what sparked its popularity. But eventually, it might have drifted too far in the direction of informality.

Since 2012, the adverb’s frequency in fiction has decreased. “Politeness terms” tend to get tugged between two impulses, Pinker noted: the fear of seeming rude, and the fear of seeming fawning or gushy. “They may rise and fall in popularity when they seem to veer too much in one direction or another,” he said. Please can toe the line between brief and brusque, depending on its context; a child asking “Can I have some more candy please?” sounds harmless compared with your boss saying “Can you have this report on my desk by Monday please?” The word tends to communicate an expectation, rather than a genuine question, and that can give it an authoritative edge; the please can feel especially perfunctory coming from someone in a position of power, but it can rub people the wrong way in plenty of circumstances. I, for one, can’t bring myself to summon it unless accepting something already offered—as in “Yes, please.”

Sometimes, please can even imply intentional rudeness. “I can hardly imagine a young person saying ‘Could you please …’ except with special irritation stress on please, implying, ‘I’ve asked more than enough times,’” Noam Chomsky, arguably the father of modern linguistics, told me. I was reminded of the ’90s thriller Basic Instinct. When the character Catherine Tramell tells visiting detectives to “get the fuck out of here, please,” she sums it up: The word can brilliantly convey anger, irony, passive aggression, condescension, formality, or desperation—all without a hint of true politeness.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to ask for something—think “Would you mind …?” As the writer Choire Sicha observed in The New York Times, the request “Hey, could you …?” is especially widespread in an office context. He finds that phrase irritating; on the spectrum from curt to cloying, it’s certainly closer to the latter end. Gentler alternatives like these, though, might portend the near future of the polite request. Unlike please, they spend more than one syllable on their recipient and, following their ancestor s’il vous plaît, don’t assume an outcome.

Chomsky, like plenty of others, still uses please. (“I’m an old-fashioned conservative,” he explained.) I doubt he means the word to sound anything but gracious. And yet, I do think efforts to enforce its use are misguided: Take Amazon’s setting for its virtual assistant, Alexa, in which she responds “Thanks for asking so nicely” when kids say the “magic word,” or companies such as Chick-fil-A training their employees to use it. These measures confuse please, the term, with courtesy in general—as if it’s impossible to be polite without it.

The truth is that English is a living language, always and inevitably evolving, and no one can freeze it in time. If the word’s centuries-long shortening teaches us anything, though, it’s that this evolution can be fitful, and its transitions awkward. Please is at a strange crossroads between its once and future meaning—but it would please me to see it go.