The Linguistics Of Email: How To Ask For Things In Business Emails

Balancing politeness with clarity is key to getting things done.

Share this article

Share this article

Balancing politeness with clarity is key to getting things done.


The Linguistics Of Email: How To Ask For Things In Business Emails

Balancing politeness with clarity is key to getting things done.

Share this article

Are these emails, polite, and clear? Does the reader have the option to say no?

  1. I wanted to ask if you thought it might be possible to get a bit of time with the Secretary.
  2. Tom Donilon wants to meet.

(Examples from the Clinton Corpus[1])

In business emails we often ask colleagues and clients for something – but we also need to manage our relationships with them. Linguists refer to the key elements behind this as politeness, clarity, and face.

So how can you knowingly apply these linguistic components in your workplace business emails?

Politeness & Relationship Management

Politeness is not just about good manners, but about the words we use to manage relationships. We can see this in example a).

The hedging words (possible, a bit) and indirect language (wanted to ask, if you thought), together with the lack of obvious request markers like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, or question marks, show that the writer is not taking the reader’s availability for granted. This, together with the formulaic style, suggests that the writer knows they are junior, or unfamiliar to, the reader.

As Culpeper & Haugh explain, these communicative strategies help us maintain or promote social harmony and achieve our goals[2] - particularly at work.

Here’s how you can show politeness and manage relationships in business emails:

  • Formal/situation-appropriate language. The writer in a) uses language that clearly shows they know their role in the relationship and their awareness of the significance of their request.
  • Specific words: please, thank you. Interestingly these can be in very different ways internationally.
  • Hedging words: could, would; possibly, maybe; just, a bit; if-clauses. These give the reader the option to say no, which relates to face concerns, discussed below.
  • Depersonalising: Using passive and 3rd person forms remove the active agent.
  1. c) You need to finalise the report by Thursday.
  2. d) It needs to be finalised by Thursday. (Enron Corpus[3])

This makes the request less personal and reduces the feeling of imposition from one person to another. In (c), the use of the 2nd person (you) directly assigns the task to the reader, while the 3rd person in (d)  is neutral – the imposition comes from outside circumstances, not the writer.

The Clarity Balance

As well as politeness, it’s important for emails to be clear and unambiguous. The examples we’ve seen so far don’t always strike a balance between politeness and clarity.

Example a) takes a long time to ask the basic question. The second is clear and explicit, but  its more familiar tone suggests less effort at managing the relationship.

Two ways you can improve clarity in your emails are through direct language and choosing active over passive forms:

  • Direct, informal language. ‘wants to meet’ uses a simple verb construction.
  1. e) Jeff Feltmann will call to discuss issue w Puneet. Thx. (Clinton)

This can be balanced out by politeness markers elsewhere in the message, as in (e), where ‘Thx’ softens the directness of the request/command (‘will call’).

  • Use of active over passive. This is tricky! As we saw in (d), passive forms are a useful way to indicate politeness and maintain good relations. But they lack in clarity by not stating who is doing what. The reader might well assume that this has nothing to do with them. No wonder the passive is such an issue in business writing! Adding a second statement redresses the balance: “It needs to be finalised by Thursday. Kate, can you take this on?”.

Face / Giving your Reader Options

Lots of languages have expressions about ‘losing’ or ‘saving’ face. The balance between politeness and clarity often comes down what linguists call face. Goffman describes the concept of face as: “The positive social value a person effectively claims for him-or herself”[4].

Face includes acknowledging that we don’t have an automatic right to other people’s time and effort. Requesting is an imposition on others’ freedom and is seen as a ‘face-threatening act’. By communicating our requests in a way that gives the other the option to decline, we minimise the face-threat.

We see how face is managed in (a): hedges and formal language give the reader space to say no and show that the writer doesn’t take ‘yes’ for granted. In (e) there is less face-management happening.

The use of ‘will’, together with the politeness marker ‘Thx’, leaves no room for discussion or refusal: the writer is indicating that they expect their instruction to be fulfilled. It could be face-threatening, unless the writer’s status allows such directness.

A refusal could also be perceived as damaging to the writer’s face, as it calls into question the positive social value they have claimed based on professional seniority.

A quick note about modals.

Using (but not overusing!) modals is a good way to manage face.

Modals are auxiliary (helping) verbs:

  1. Can/could/be able to
  2. May/might
  • Shall/should
  1. Must/have to
  2. Will/would

Because they cover a range of meanings from possibility to permission and obligation, they can cause misunderstanding and potential threats to face.

Sometimes there is no ambiguity:

f) Could you check something (Enron)

Sometimes it’s unclear if the writer is indicating permission or obligation:

g) you can give me the numbers and I will change the report (Enron)

But in (h) it is particularly difficult to understand what is expected:

h) The claim should be formally registered (Enron)

Is it a request for someone to register the claim urgently, or is it just a point of information?

Here’s how you can manage your use of modals in  professional communication, to ensure clarity:

  • Can you turn your question into a statement?
  • Can you take out the modal verb?
  • Can you indicate politeness and/or clarity through other words?

Consider these alternatives:

Please give me the numbers so I can change the report.

The claim needs to be formally registered by Mary, the committee chair.

The Politeness/Clarity balancing act is one we face every day, in every interaction – consciously or not.

Understanding its effects on our relationships and knowingly considering these techniques when you ask for things in emails should/will improve your communication, your readers’ responses, and your business partnerships.

Author: Dr. Rachele De Felice, Lecturer in English Linguistics, Department of English Language and Literature, University College London

[1] The Clinton emails are those sent to or from Hillary Clinton through her private email server while she was USA Secretary of State (2009-2013).

[2] Culpeper & Haugh 2014:202

[3] The Enron emails come from the investigation into the company’s accounting fraud and subsequent collapse in 2001.

[4] Goffman 1967:5

Related Articles
Get news to your inbox
Trending articles on Guides

The Linguistics Of Email: How To Ask For Things In Business Emails

Share this article