We usually make requests less direct by putting them in the form of yes/no questions. This suggests that the hearer can choose whether to agree or not.
- Could you lend me your pen, please? (Much more polite than Please lend me your pen)
- Could you, please, move a bit? (Much more polite than Please move a bit)
Expressions of opinions can also be made less direct by turning them into questions.
- It would be better to paint it green. (Direct expression of opinion)
- Wouldn’t it be better to paint it green? (Persuasive question – less direct)
- Would it be better to paint it green? (Open question – very indirect)
Past tenses are often used to make requests (and also questions, suggestions and statements) more polite.
- How many days did you intend to stay, sir? (Meaning ‘How many days do you intend to stay?)
- How much did you want to spend? (More polite than How much do you want to spend?)
- I wondered if you could lend me some money. (Less definite and so more polite)
Present progressive forms can be used in the same way. They sound more casual and less definite.
- I am hoping you can lend me some money.
Past progressive can make a request even less direct (and so more polite).
- I was wondering if you could lend me some money.
- Were you looking for anything special? (Less direct and more polite than Are you looking for anything special.)
Future tense forms
Will need/have to can be used to soften instructions and orders.
- I am afraid you will have to wait a minute.
- I will need to ask you to fill in this form.
The modal verbs would, could and might can be used to make questions, requests and suggestions more polite.
- I thought it would be nice to have a drink.
- Could you help me?
- I was wondering if you might be interested in a game of tennis.
Would is often used to form requests and offers with verbs like like and prefer.
- What would you like to drink?
Note the common use of would before verbs of saying and thinking to make a statement sound less definite.
- That is what I would call annoying.
- I would say we would do better to catch the earlier train.