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Life skills tip of the week: ways of being polite

Express-Yourself-MEDO-Web-232x300pxAs part of this year’s pragmatics series, we bring more useful content and tips from the Macmillan Dictionary on expressing yourself.

The previous language tip looked at ways of saying thank you.

This week’s tip gives some ways of saying something politely:

In our recent post on ways of agreeing and disagreeing we looked at some phrases that are used when politely disagreeing with someone. Knowing how and when to use these types of phrases is important, because what is normal in one language or culture can sound rude in another. 

Phrases such as (I’m) sorry, Excuse me, or Pardon me can be used to show politeness in many different contexts, such as asking for information and interrupting, as well as disagreeing:
Sorry/Excuse me, do you know what time it is?
I’m sorry, but I don’t see how you expect us to finish by lunchtime.

Excuse me, but I never said I’d pay for everything.
Excuse me, but there’s a phone call for you.
Excuse me for a moment, I have to make a phone call.

Pardon me, but those numbers aren’t right.
Pardon me for interrupting, but there’s a phone call for you.

(I’m) Sorry, Excuse me and Pardon me can also be used when asking someone politely to repeat something. Excuse me and Pardon me are used mainly in American English:
‘Is this your coat?’ ‘Excuse me/Pardon me?’
I’m sorry, what was your name again?

Excuse me is used in British English and Pardon me in American English when asking someone politely to move so you can get past.

Expressions such as I don’t know, I see/take your point and That’s true, but… can be used when you want to disagree with someone to some degree, rather than completely:
‘It’ll be boring.’ ‘Oh I don’t know. It might be fun.’
I see your point, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do at the moment.

Phrases such asWith (the greatest) respect, with all (due) respect and I beg to differ are very polite and formal ways of disagreeing with someone:
With all due respect, I think you’re missing the point.
He argues that young people would benefit from parenting courses. I beg to differ.

Actually can be used when disagreeing politely with someone, or to correct them:
‘I find James a bit dull.’ ‘He’s actually very nice when you get to know him.’
‘That Picasso’s amazing!’ ‘Actually it’s by Braque.’

I’m afraid can be used for politely telling someone something that might upset, disappoint or annoy them:
Things haven’t been going very well here, I’m afraid.
I’m afraid that I can’t accept this job.
I’m afraid to say I found the book very dull.
‘Did he forget to do it?’ ‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Will John be there?’ ‘I’m afraid not.’

Would you like to learn more about pragmatics? Keep a close eye on our pragmatics page where the fourth of our life skills lesson plans was published last week. For more information about Life Skills, visit the Macmillan Life Skills page.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


  • I came across your blog only today, 26 May 2014. I wonder how much lessons in the English language I have missed but it doesn’t matter. Now that I have your website, I am sure I shall learn more about English in the global usage. My English is not very good that’s why I am thankful that I came across your blog because I am very sure I will learn a lot, and I am going to share it with my family back home by printing every lesson and forwarding it to them – they have no connection to the internet.

    Thank you for this wonderful website for people who are striving hard to be good English speaker and writer.

  • Sometimes, some users of American English will say “Excuse me” in a scolding tone, indicating to the hearer that what has been said or done prior to that comment was rude and unacceptable. (Note: I linked to your site from Stan Carey’s Sentence First site.)

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