English for Everybody - Advanced course
Do you know what this is about?


Instructions and requests.

Instructions and requests are about more than just grammar. When you make an instruction or a request, you want someone to do something for you. If you get this important social interaction wrong, you might offend your boss, your friends, or your boyfriend/girlfriend. Some requests show that the person you are speaking to can choose to do as you want. Other ways of speaking indicate that if the request is not followed there will be trouble. But unfortunately, you can't decide to be safe and use only very polite requests. This is because English people sometimes use very polite requests as a way of being sarcastic, which is very rude and offensive. So to learn how not to make these mistakes, you will read the text below; and you will do it now! Hurry up!

Here, we are going to look at

The difference between requests and instructions.

Instructions (also called imperatives).
Grammar. Instructions require the person receiving them to do something, or to stop doing it. Instructions are directly adressed to the person who has to do them. Therefore, instructions are one of the few types of English sentences that do not need a subject. The subject is usually "you" (understood). If there is any doubt who should do the instruction, the "naming" form - the vocative is used.
For example:
"Everyone, be quiet! Fred, (you) say that again."
(Notice that the first instruction is general, and the second instruction is just for Fred.).
Instructions are gramatically the same as orders. However, their use is very different.

Use. Orders do not give the person who receives them any choice - they should be obeyed. As a result, most people do not like receiving orders, and they may ask if the person giving them has any right to do this. If it is not obvious that they do, there may be a confrontation, or the person giving the orders will get a repuation for being "bossy". (This is not a good thing). Therefore orders are usually given to children by their parents, pets by their owners, and by soldiers to soldiers who are less important.
For example:
"William, stop crying, now!"
"Fido, come here, boy."
"Sergeant, attack that hill."
Everyone else usually uses the grammar of requests. However, English people do not mind (and usually obey) written instructions, since these are not orders, and can be quire useful. (You will see instructions on how to do each grammar exercise, for example.) You often see these in writing. Interestingly, many advertisements are instructions.
For example:
"Lose 10kg in 2 weeks!!!."   "Insert part A in slot B"
When you buy something, you often get a booklet of instructions on how to use it. This is called a manual.

Imperatives are not usual in spoken English, except with people who know eachother well enough not to be very polite. When an imperative is used with an identifying vocative (a naming word), the vocative comes first or last in the sentence.
For example:
"Put the books over there, Sally.."
Or a policeman might say something like:
"Step out of your car, sir."

Grammar. Requests are often questions, though indirect requests may not be. Sometimes an instruction is changed into a request by the addition of "please" or a question tag. To make a request more polite we might use the subjunctive form of the verb. Very often English requests are indirect. Instead of asking someone to do something, the speaker asks if the person is able to do it. Therefore modals of ability ("can", "may" etc) are very often used.
For example:
"Come here, please." (order modified with "please".)
"Pass the salt, would you?" (order modified with question tag)
"Can I take this seat?" (indirect request with modal of ability)
"Could I take this seat?" ( polite indirect request with modal of ability in the subjunctive)
The subjunctive modal sounds complicated, but for the moment, just remember that "Could" is more polite than "Can", and "Might" is more polite than "May". "May/might" is slightly more polite than "can/could", but generally you can use either one.

Use. Requests and instructions are very complicated in use, because it is important not to offend people by giving orders. (This is also why many insults are given as orders.) To avoid offence, orders are often given as requests, even if the person receiving them must do as he is told. On the other hand suggestions, or encouragement from friends are often given as orders. Indirect requests are often questions related to what the speaker wants, but which do not directly ask for something. Just to make it all more complicated, sometimes even suggestions are really strong orders, and some polite instructions are given as ordinary statements.
For example:
"Could you call Mr Biggs for me, Margaret?" (order as request.)
"Would you like to open your suitcase, Madam?"(order as suggestion.)
"Have fun!."(encouragement as order)
"Go on! Have some more cake."(suggestion as order)
"Go to hell!"(insult as order)
"Why don't you go to hell?"(insult as strong suggestion)
"Some more coffee would be nice."(request as statement)
"Have you got any change?"(indirect request for money by beggars as related question)
"You might consider doing it this way ... "(instruction as statement)

"Please" is often used to change an order into a request. It does this by suggesting that the person receiving it can choose whether or not to do it. ("Please" is a short way of saying "if it pleases you".) As with vocatives "please" comes at the beginning or the end of the request. Generally, if there is a vocative and "please" in a sentence, they go at different ends. (You can choose which.) If they are at the same end, the vocative comes first at the beginning, or last at the end.
For example:
"Samantha, please come here."
"Samantha, come here please."
"Come here please, Samantha."
"Please come here Samantha.
are all different ways of saying the same thing. If it is a boss speaking to his secretary, this would be an instruction. If it is a boy talking to his girlfriend, it is a request.

Other modifiers
As a rule, the more strongly we suggest that we expect the person receiving a request to do it, the less polite the request is. The more modifiers we put in, and the more remote we make the possibility seem, the more polite it becomes. If it becomes too polite, it is sarcastic, which is not polite at all.
For example:
"Lend me ten pounds until Friday, will you?" (informal, not polite)
"Lend me ten pounds until Friday, would you?"
"Do you think you could lend me ten pounds until Friday?"
"Do you think you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday?"
"I don't suppose that you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday?"
"I don't suppose that you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday, by any chance?"
"I don't suppose that you could possibly lend me ten pounds until Friday, by any chance, could you, please?" (very, very, humble)


Formal orders are usually seen in writing. They are either in the form of short imperatives, or as statements in the future tense, or with modal "must". Passives may be used.
For example:
"No left turn.
"Gentlemen must wear ties.
"Staff will be at work by 9 a.m..
"Female workers are to be properly dressed."

Formal requests are indirect, or very polite. Sometimes the meaning and the words are very different.
For example:
"Excuse me, is this place taken?" (Translation: I want to sit here.)
" You'll find an ashtray in the smoking area, over there." (Translation: Please don'r smoke here)
" Maybe you should leave now." (Translation: Get out.)
" Perhaps you would like to pay now?" (Translation: Pay.)
" I'm sorry, but our salt has run out" (Translation: We want to use your salt
" It is after midnight, you know" (Translation: Please be quiet

People in official positions often make polite requests when they are commands.
For example:
"Would you come with us, please Sir?"
"Would you like to explain why you don't have your licence?"
(Notice that the grammar is the same as for offers but the meaning is completely different.)
"Please can you take a seat over there."

The neutral register is perhaps the most common. It is used with people you know casually (acquaintances) or people you work with. Requests are often orders moderated with "please", or with question tags. Indirect requests are more common for requests that might be refused.
For example:
"Do you want to open that window, Mike? "
"Call me when you are finished, would you?"
"Can you tell me what to do here?"
"Turn out that light when you go, please."
Sometimes an introductory phrase is used.
"Do me a favour. Pass that file there, please."
"Have you got a moment? I need some help here."

With friends and family we usually use the informal register. Imperatives are often given as imperatives, sometimes very strongly, and often in a friendly fashion. Indirect requests are statements of fact. Requests for changes in behaviour begin with the words "I wish".
For example:
"I wish you would remember to lock the back door. "
"Give me a hand over here."
"I'm trying to watch TV, if you don't mind."
"Billy, you put that down at once!"
"Come for dinner next week."
"Don't wear that dress with those shoes.
"You take that one, I'll have this."
"Wait here, I'll be back in a moment."

Note. When English people are offended or angry, they often use a very polite register. This is not intended to be polite, and may in fact be sarcastic.
For example:
"If you don't mind, waiter, please may I take a moment of your valuable time to order some food?"
"Would you please be so very kind as to stop blocking this door? "
"If you don't mind, I would like to have the ketchup, thank you dear."
"I would really appreciate it if you would please tell me next time you are going to be late."

Answering requests and Instructions.

Formal Acknowledgement. The safest answer to an order is "Yes", usually followed by the name or title of the person giving the order.
For example:
"Yes, Mrs Jones"
(Or for husbands) "Yes, dear."
With requests, you can use "certainly", "by all means", "of course" or "with pleasure". If you are asked to pass or give something, you can say "Here you are." as you give it. For a request to do something, you can say "please do".
For example:
"May I read that paper, if you have finished with it?"
"Yes, please do." or
"By all means." or
"Here you are.."
If you are being asked to stop doing something you shouldn't, you can apologise.
Can I come past please?:
"Of course, sorry"
"Oh. I'm sorry. Please do.""
Formal refusal When you receive a formal request or instruction it is not usual (or polite) to refuse directly. More usually you give the reason for refusing, and sometimes an apology. Another tactic is to change an order into a discussion.
For example:
Show me your homework.:
"I'm sorry, I can't find it."
"Er .. what homework is that?"
Tell me his name.:
"I'm afraid I can't do that, it is confidential."
"I'm sorry, why would you want that information?"

Informal and casual agreement. Informal responses are more relaxed, and show a greater range of emotions.
For example:
Come here!:
"Sure" (Relaxed)
"Okay, okay.". (Suggesting the order is a bit impatient)
"Coming. What's up?" (Notice the agreement first, to show the question is genuine, not a refusal)
Informal refusals
For example:
"No". (don't give me orders!)
"I'm busy". (I don't want to come)
"Do I have to". (let's discuss this)
Or confrontational:
"Get lost!"
"No, you come here!"
"Who do you think you are?"

Okay. Maybe you would like to do some exercises (indirect suggestion). If you find that are difficult, come back to this page and read it again. (instruction) Click the blue arrow to go on (instruction) Have fun! (friendly order)

Let's go!