English Usage Topics > Requests, Orders, and Instructions
Requests, Orders, and Instructions
When you make a request, you ask someone for something or ask them to do something. If you have authority over someone or know them well, you give them an order or an instruction, that is you tell them to do something rather than asking them to do something. You can also give someone instructions on how to do something or what to do in a particular situation.
Information on how to reply to a request or order is given at the end of this entry.
Asking for something
The simplest way to ask for something is to say 'Can I have...?' (You use we instead of I if you are speaking on behalf of a group.) You can add please in order to be more polite.
Can I have some tomatoes?
Can we have something to wipe our hands on, please?
It is more polite to use could.
Could I have another cup of coffee?
Requests with may sound very polite and formal, and requests with might sound old-fashioned.
May we have something to eat?
You use can't or couldn't instead of 'can' or 'could' to make a request sound more persuasive, if you think you may not get what you are asking for.
Can't we have some music?
You can use 'Have you got...?', 'You haven't got...', or 'You don't have...' and a question tag, to ask for something in an informal, indirect way.
Have you got a piece of paper or something I could write it on?
You haven't got a spare pen, have you?
An indirect way of asking for something you think you might not get is to say 'Any chance of...?' This is very informal and casual.
Any chance of a bit more cash in the New Year?
Asking as a customer
If you want to ask for something in a shop, bar, café, or hotel, you can simply use a noun phrase followed by please.
A packet of crisps, please.
Two black coffees, please.
You can also say 'I'd like...'.
As I'm here, doctor, I'd like a prescription for some aspirins.
I'd like a room, please. For one night.
If you are not sure whether a particular thing is available, you say 'Have you got...?' or 'Do you have...?'.
Have you got any brochures on Holland?
Do you have any information on that?
When you are in a restaurant or bar, you can say 'I'll have...'. You can also say this when you are offered something to eat or drink in someone's house. You can also say 'I'd like...'.
The waitress brought their drinks and said, 'Ready to order?' 'Yes,' said Ellen. 'I'll have the shrimp cocktail and the chicken.'
I'd like some tea.
Asking someone to do something
You can ask someone to do something by saying 'Could you...?' or 'Would you...?' This is fairly polite. You can add please to be more polite.
Could you just switch the projector on behind you?
Could you tell me, please, what time the flight arrives?
Would you tell her that Adrian phoned?
Would you take the call for him, please?
You can make a request even more polite by adding perhaps or possibly after 'Could you'.
Morris, could you possibly take me to the station on your way to work this morning?
If you want to be very polite, you can say 'Do you think you could...?' or 'I wonder if you could...?'
Do you think you could help me?
I wonder if you could look after my garden for me while I'm away?
You can also use 'Would you mind...?' and an -ing form.
Would you mind fetching another chair?
Would you mind waiting a moment?
In formal letters and speech, you use very polite expressions such as 'I would be grateful if...', 'I would appreciate it if...', or 'Would you kindly...'.
I would be grateful if you could let me know.
I would appreciate it if you could deal with this issue promptly.
Would you kindly call to see us next Tuesday at eleven o'clock?
Note that these very polite expressions are in fact sometimes used as indirect ways of telling someone to do something.
In informal situations, you can say 'Can you...?' or 'Will you...?'
Can you give us a hand?
Can you make me a copy of that?
Will you post this for me on your way to work?
Will you turn on the light, please, Henry?
If you think it is unlikely that the person you are asking will agree to your request, you use 'You wouldn't...would you?', or 'You couldn't...could you?' You also use these structures when you realize that you are asking them to do something which is difficult or will involve a lot of work.
You wouldn't sell it to me, would you?
You couldn't give me a lift, could you?
You can also use 'I suppose you couldn't...' or 'I don't suppose you would...'.
I suppose you couldn't just stay an hour or two longer?
I don't suppose you'd be prepared to stay in Edinburgh?
People sometimes use expressions such as 'Would you do me a favour?' and 'I wonder if you could do me a favour' to show that they are about to ask you to do something for them.
'Oh, Bill, I wonder if you could do me a favour.' – 'Depends what it is.' – 'Could you ring me at this number about eleven on Sunday morning?'
'Do me a favour, Grace. Don't say anything about this to Sally.' – 'All right.'
Orders and instructions
People often ask someone to do something, rather than telling them to do it, even when they have authority over them, because this is more polite. More direct ways of telling someone to do something are explained below.
In an informal situation, you can use an imperative clause. This is a direct and forceful way of giving an order.
Pass the salt.
Let me see it.
Don't touch that!
Look out! There's a car coming.
It is not very polite to use imperative clauses like this in speech and you mainly use them when talking to people you know well, or in situations of danger or urgency.
However, imperative forms are quite often used to invite someone to do something, in phrases such as 'Come in' and 'Take a seat'.
You can use please to make orders more polite.
Go and get the file, please.
Wear rubber gloves, please.
You can use the question tag will you? to make an order sound less forceful and more like a request.
Come into the kitchen, will you?
Don't mention them, will you?
People also use will you? to make an order more forceful when they are angry.
See section below on emphatic orders.
You can also use the tag won't you? to make an order more like a request, unless you are giving a negative order.
See that she gets safely back, won't you?
You can say 'I would like you to...' or 'I'd like you to...' as an indirect, polite way of telling someone to do something, especially someone you have authority over.
John, I would like you to get us the files.
I'd like you to read this.
I shall be away tomorrow, so I'd like you to chair the weekly meeting.
You use do in front of an imperative form to add emphasis when you are telling someone to do something that will be for their own benefit, or when you are friendly with them.
Do be careful.
Do remember to tell William about the change of plan.
You use 'You must...' to emphasize the importance and necessity of the action.
You must come at once.
You mustn't tell anyone.
You can also use 'You have to...' or 'You can't...' for this usage, and these forms are preferred in American English.
You have to come and register now.
You can't tell anyone about this place.
You can also add emphasis to an order by putting you in front of an imperative form. However, this is very informal and sometimes shows impatience.
You take it.
You get in the car.
You use 'Will you...?' to give an order in a forceful and direct way, either to someone you have authority over or when you are angry or impatient.
Will you pack everything, please, Maria.
Will you stop yelling!
People also add the tag will you? to an imperative clause when they are angry.
Just listen to me a minute, will you?
People say 'Can't you...?' when they are very angry. This is very impolite.
Really, can't you show a bit more consideration?
Look, can't you shut up about it?
Adding the question tag can't you? to an imperative clause is also impolite and shows annoyance.
Do it quietly, can't you?
People use 'You will...', with stress on will, to emphasize the fact that the other person has no choice but to carry out the order. This is a very strong form of order, and is only used by people who have unquestionable authority.
You will go and get one of your parents immediately.
You will give me those now.
Signs and notices
On signs and notices, negative orders are sometimes expressed by no and an -ing form.
Must be is sometimes used for positive orders.
Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times.
Instructions on how to do something
You can use an imperative clause to give instructions on how to do something. This is not impolite.
Turn right off Broadway into Caxton Street.
Fry the chopped onion and pepper in the oil.
Imperative clauses are especially common in written instructions. Verbs that usually have an object are often not given an object in instructions, when it is clear what the instructions refer to. For example, you might see Store in a dry place on a packet of food, rather than 'Store this food in a dry place'. Similarly, determiners are often left out. You might read in a recipe Peel and core apples rather than 'Peel and core the apples'.
Must be is used to show what you should do with something. Should be is used in a similar way, but is less strong.
Mussels must be bought fresh and cooked on the same day.
No cake should be stored before it is quite cold.
In conversation and informal writing, you can also use you and the present simple to give instructions. We use you like this in this book.
First you take a few raisins and soak them overnight in water.
Note that in sentences like these you use an infinitive without to after 'would rather'.
Replying to a request or order
You can agree to someone's request informally by saying 'OK', 'All right', or 'Sure'.
'Do them as fast as you can.' – 'Yes, OK.'
'Don't do that.' – 'All right, I won't.'
'Could you give me lift?' – 'Sure.'
If you want to be more polite, you can say 'Certainly'.
'Could you make out my bill, please?' – 'Certainly, sir.'
You can refuse someone's request by saying something like 'I'm sorry, I'm afraid I can't' or by giving the reason why you are unable to do what they want.
'Put it on the bill.' – 'I'm afraid I can't do that.'
'Could you phone me back later?' – 'No, I'm going out in five minutes.'
Note that it is impolite just to say 'No'.
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