Sep 062009

open_windowsThere’s a word for some of the expressions we use in English when we’re trying to get someone to do something. When we say things like ‘Could you shut the window?’ or ‘Would you mind shutting the window?’ instead of a simple ‘Shut the window’, we’re using a whimperative – a rather neat amalgamation of ‘whimper’ and ‘imperative’.

These expressions generally sound pretty weird translated into other languages and who knows why we use them. I guess they’re an indication of the high value English speaking cultures place on personal autonomy. They’re pretty unique to English speakers and I hear them on both sides of the pond. So a job we commonly have to do as EFL teachers is explaining to students that we like to sound – well, whimpish.

There are variations in how Brits and Americans use whimperatives, and no doubt Canadians and Australians and other varieties too. I’ve mentioned some differences before, but one I’m still trying to work out is ‘really’. Compare these examples:

British: Could you take these cheques to the bank tomorrow?

‘merican: I really need you to take these checks to the bank tomorrow

I’m still scratching my head about this, but I reckon that ‘really’ in ‘merican is softening the imperative. I think it might mean ‘I’ll suffer if you don’t and therefore I am showing you how indebted to you I am, and how important you are to me.’ In short, another positive politeness strategy. (Americans – please put me right if I’m wrong about this!)

Now from British frame, ‘I really need you to…’ seems a pretty demanding way to go about getting someone to do something. Why not apologise for imposing and whimper a bit instead? Or even just keep a stiff upper lip and avoid asking at all?

Which brings me to something else: there’s a little mantra that I find myself running through my head when I’m living here. I do wonder if I’m taking terrible liberties, but I tell myself: ‘It’s OK to ask for things in America’. Whoo! Could this be true?

 Posted by at 4:09 am

  12 Responses to “Whimpish imperatives”

  1. How can you tell “I really need you to….” is NOT demanding?
    Are you being too whimpish and British in suggesting it’s a polite form?
    Or is it assertiveness?
    What would happen if you replied -i really need you to understand that if you really need to do it you should really do it yourself?

  2. Good question Chris. I don’t think I’m being whimpishly British, but I’m still a bit at sea and ready for more instruction on this.

    The thing that has me thinking that ‘really’ is a politeness marker is I find American’s adding it spontaneously when I’m asking them ‘How would you say…?’ type questions.

    In fact Anne inserted it the other day on this site when we were talking about ‘I don’t mind’ vs. ‘I don’t care’ and she suggested ‘I don’t really care’.

    Now ‘I don’t care’ suggests apathy to my British ear and adding ‘really’ just exacerbates the problem. But to my ‘merican ear, I can see that adding ‘really’ makes it more polite in some way, as Anne explained.

    Hearing folks insert ‘really’ in request situations has prompted me to ask them, what’s the difference between ‘I need you to…’ and ‘I really need you to..’? The answer has often been the one with ‘really’ sounds more polite.

    And that seem pretty curious to my British ear, because it sounds more demanding and so less polite. And yet it’s more polite.

    All very odd.

  3. Brilliant! That’s … really clear.
    Really. 🙂

  4. Hi Vicki,

    “Whimpish imperative” is an absolutely brilliant term, brilliant in the American sense 😉

    “I think it might mean ‘I’ll suffer if you don’t and therefore I am showing you how indebted to you I am, and how important you are to me.’ In short, another positive politeness strategy.”

    I think you’ve nailed it. It seems connected to our unabashedly narcissistic, “me”-centered culture which allows us to bare our weaknesses and needs without being perceived as weak and needy, as long as we use the right phrases and do it in all the right places. But of course it puts the pressure on the other person: When you cower before another fellow civilized being, you limit the type of behavior they can allow themselves. That’s what makes all these politeness strategies reeeeally unfair.

  5. Oops, typo: Of course I meant I love your amalgamation of the two into “whimperative” – beautiful.

  6. Great to see you, Anne.
    Yeah, ‘whimperative’ is a great word. I didn’t make it up – it really is a term in linguistics. I’ve seen a couple of accounts of its etymology. One is the one I mentioned earlier so ‘whimper+imperative’ and the other is ‘wh+imperative’ – so indicating an interrogative variety of imperative. I suspect the second one might be the real one actually, but the first sounds more fun (so I cheated a bit).

  7. Anne,
    I think you’ve nailed something really important when you say “When you cower before another fellow civilized being, you limit the type of behavior they can allow themselves.”
    We can’t put someone down, without putting ourselves down too.

  8. Just come across your blog, Vicki, and enjoying trawling through it.

    I once had a job teaching English to Italian state railway ticket inspectors. Trying to explain the whimperative was really challenging
    Them: Why is it “Could I see your ticket please?”, it’s not a question.
    Me: Yes, I know, but it’s how we say “Show me your ticket”
    Them (rolling eyes): But why? It’s ridiculous. They have to show their tickets.

    etc etc and so on…

  9. To be fair to the Italians, Andy, the last time i travelled on a train in Britain all i heard was a curt – “Tickets please”
    By now it’s probably just -“Tickets”.
    Then again, having been fair to the Italians we should point out that they used to give sweets as change!

  10. I think they still do Chris. In Romania where I live they definitely still do. Sweets, matches, chewing gum (unused), whatever is to hand really.

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