There’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?