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What your English teacher never told you - Yes, please... No, thank you!

Marzo 2015
L’unica regola che non ammette eccezioni in inglese: please e thank you, le parole magiche da dire sempre, ogni volta che si chiede qualcosa o si riceve qualcosa, anche a costo di ripetersi. Un tic linguistico che ha la sua ragion d’essere e che non viene mai sottolineato abbastanza nei corsi d’inglese.

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

Unfortunately many English teachers dedicate a lot of lesson time to translation. Translation is a difficult skill and requires a highly developed sensitivity not only to the two languages involved but also to cultural difference. School students rarely have this sensitivity, of course, unless they were born bilingual, and so the literal – word for word – translation of texts can lead to misunderstandings. This is true even where really simple expressions like “please” and “thank you” are concerned.


Many students of English today don’t know exactly how to say “please” and “thank you,” still less how often they should use these expressions. Very few teachers explain that saying “please” and  “thank you” is an unconscious reflex for British people, and you can cause offense if you don’t develop the same habit.
Here’s an example of a translation problem. As an English-speaker living in Italy I am frequently offended when I offer things to people, such as a slice of cake for example, and I receive the answer, “Yes, if you want,” or even, “Yes, of course.” I’ve heard these answers so many times, especially among younger people, that I have started to think that their real meaning is probably something like “Yes, if you want (are willing to be so kind as to give me some cake),” or “Yes, of course (I would like a piece of that delicious cake).” The trouble is that in English, these expressions sound extremely rude and can be interpreted as, “Yes, if you really must give me some cake” or, worse still, “Yes, of course I want some cake, stupid!”


If you’re reading this and thinking that the correct answer is “Yes, thank you,” you’d be guilty of another mistranslation. The correct response to “Would you like some cake?” or any other offer,  is “Yes, please.” “Yes, thank you” is the correct answer to a different type of question, something like “Have you had enough cake?” “Are you feeling better?” “Did you have a good holiday?” where the questioner is enquiring about something and is not offering anything at all.


However, the key point that teachers rarely emphasize enough is the frequency with which English people say “please” and “thank you.” It’s extremely important that you learn to do this. Foreigners are allowed to make mistakes in most areas of English, but forgetting to say “please” and “thank you” is a serious offence. We may seem obsessive about it, but consider that in English, we don’t have a polite form of “you,” so we have to demonstrate politeness in other ways.


This rule applies whenever you order, buy or request anything anywhere in the UK, not just with friends and new acquaintances, but also in shops, restaurants, trains, buses and hotels. Usually staff who work in these places will treat you politely, but they expect to be treated politely in return.


The general rule is that every time you ask someone for something, whether you are a customer or a shop assistant or waiter, you must end your request with “please.” So you should say: “I’ll have the steak, please,” “Can I have the bill, please?” or “Two pints of lager, please.” In return you will hear, “Could you sign here, please?” “That’s ten pounds fifty, please” and even a policeman will say “Can I see some identification, please?”


Similarly, every time someone satisfies your request, does something for you or gives you something, you must say “thank you.” Here there is some variety in the possible response. “Thank you” can be shortened to “Thanks” or even “’kyou” in spoken English. In the Midlands or North of England you might hear ‘Ta!’ and many people say or write “Cheers.” Whatever expression you prefer, you must choose one and use it. Remember that British people often thank the bus driver when they get off the bus, and even in a busy pub, where the bartender can hardly hear you, you should signal your thanks with a smile and a nod .
In the UK “Please” and “Thank you” are automatic responses, more so than in other English-speaking countries. So if you’re thinking of going there, you must remember to use them, or you’ll risk making an extremely bad impression.

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