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“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”
—Anna Quindlen (1953-), American Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist
Style matters – especially when we talk with our co-workers, consumers, patients, and supervisors. English language learners, immigrants, and far too many English-speaking workers sometimes forget this basic principle of workplace communication. It’s also why English teachers must explicitly teach and model best practices.
Consider the difference in how these requests sound.
- Shut off the TV!
- Please turn off the TV?
- Could you turn off the TV?
- Would you please turn off the TV?
- Close the door!
- Shut the damn door!
- Close the door; I need some privacy.
- Would you please close the door; we can’t hear ourselves talk.
- Could you get the door?
- Can you close the door?
Sometimes, especially in an emergency, it is appropriate to warn other people with a short command:
- Call the police!
- Shut the door!
Try it out
Volume, tone, and context help us recognize an emergency. Imperatives, or short command sentences, are powerful communication tools in these situations. The speaker gives an order; we listen.
Try using the following prompts to increase student comprehension and demonstrate proper imperative usage.
Consider: when would it be appropriate to give a warning on your job? Please give 3 examples.
However, we also make our requests that are not emergencies. We can – and should – give suggestions in a kinder, gentler way. Unfortunately, too many people pretend that every annoyance is an emergency and speak in a rude, impolite way to co-workers. This sort of harsh speech can even be abusive.
We can, however, use many words to make quick requests and polite suggestions.
May · Can · Could · Would · Should · Might
Please write a request that you might give or hear at work with these words.
Another tip: adding the word “please” makes your requests and suggestions sound nicer too!
It’s worth noting – and emphasizing – that both American classrooms and business offices tend to be less hierarchical and more causal than in many other countries and cultures. In the American context, there’s often far less social distance between teachers and students and managers and employees. Effective English teachers and corporate managers usually choose clear, polite speech in giving orders that sound like simple requests. “Can we finish that report by Tuesday?” Hint: this question is often not a real question. Our team will finish the report by Tuesday.
How you stress the importance of correct imperative usage with your ESL and VESL students? Which techniques and/or activities have you found especially helpful? Feel free to share recommendations!
For more free, reproducible worksheets like the one featured in this post, check out our on-site collection! For more material on workplace English and job interview prep, check out the Practicing Interviews chapter from Compelling American Conversations, available through Teachers Pay Teachers!