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A police officer who pulls over a driver might ask to see his “license and registration, please.” Similarly, a border official might ask for a “passport, please.” However, in these situations, the asked party doesn’t have the option to refuse.

Does the word “please” imply that the addressee has the option not to obey the request?

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Whether or not please implies that (which it does not), what options you do or do not have in such cases is regulated by laws, not by grammar rules. –  RegDwigнt Aug 2 '12 at 14:50
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I wasn't asking whether the addressee has such a right (obviously no criminal can say "Ha! The officer said please, so I don't have to do it!"). I was asking whether the asker used the word appropriately. –  David Robinson Aug 2 '12 at 14:52
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Similarly, if one discussed a police officer using a double negative like "You don't have no right to leave," one wouldn't be discussing whether the addressee is then granted that right. –  David Robinson Aug 2 '12 at 14:59
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When Mr Wolf said: "Pretty please with sugar on top - clean the f**king car", he didn't intend to imply there was any choice in the matter. –  Brian Hooper Aug 2 '12 at 15:48
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You always have the option to refuse, whether it is an order, a request, or whatever. Simply put, sometimes the negative consequences of refusing make it seem like you don't have the option, but really you do. There are times when it is bad or unlawlful but really, you still have the option. –  Sephallia Aug 2 '12 at 20:08

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Please serves to distinguish a request from a command, but just because something is phrased as a request, that doesn't mean you can refuse it. A business owner who says "Ma'am, I'll have to ask you to leave" is being more polite than one who just says "Out!", but neither can be denied.

In your specific examples, I think that politeness is a major factor, but another factor might be that an utterance like "Passport" is very open-ended — passport what? — whereas "Passport, please" is more clearly a request. (It's still vague, in that it doesn't specify exactly what the passport-related request is, but I'm guessing that it's less liable to cause confusion.)

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I don't really agree that 'Please' serves to distinguish a request from a command, I'm afraid. In both cases it tends to support it. In the case of your business owner, he is more likely to get a positive result using politeness for his command than by simply saying "Out!" Perhaps ultimately neither can be denied but the latter example is likely to meet more resistance, if only for the expectation of #Please." –  Tony Balmforth Aug 3 '12 at 8:20
    
@TonyBalmforth: In the case of the business owner, he didn't use "please"; instead, he used the construction "ask [person] to [verb]". Or do you also think that that construction can express a command? –  ruakh Aug 3 '12 at 13:31
    
@TonyBalmforth: (BTW, this might be clearer if we explicitly separate the semantics from the pragmatics. I think that "please" or "ask [person] to [verb]" semantically denotes a request, but a semantic request can still function pragmatically as a command.) –  ruakh Aug 3 '12 at 13:33

Personally, and for at least one professional psychologist I know, the "please" does imply optionality.

However, she and I were speaking of addressing commands to children, and as your comment notes, the other factor in the situation, force backed authority, rules out the optionality. Although, as already pointed out by @choster, one could choose to be arrested or denied entry to a country by refusing to produce the relevant documents.

As to "whether the asker used the word appropriately" appropriately is hard to define. As others have already pointed out there is both a politeness associated with please and a possible emphasis of the request. Particularly in the case of emphasis the questioner used the term appropriately, and for many people the absence of politeness would be worse than any technical ambiguity of usage. That said, commands have a specific form, as @TonyBalmforth pointed out regarding military orders.

As a native (American) English speaker I would never argue that the questioner's grammar was incorrect, but the use of please in any command causes me minor annoyance.

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There is some ambiguity about the officer's powers. For example, the officer may say "License and registration please" when in fact the officer is empowered to demand them. The officer may also say "May I search your car please" when in fact absent the subject's consent, the officer would have needed a warrant. This is to the officer's advantage. If the subject refuses a mandatory request, the officer can simply repeat it in the form of an unambiguous command. If the subject accepts an optional request thinking it mandatory, then the officer's powers have been effectively enlargened. –  emory Aug 2 '12 at 21:58

I am almost bristling at the question 'should one ever (my italics) use the word "please" in an order or demand?' There again, that may be traditional British sensitivity! In my opinion it should always be used out of courtesy except for a limited number of circumstances, mainly military or para-military orders.

I would certainly expect bosses, public servants, shop assistants - in fact just about anyone issuing a demand to temper it with politeness. Occasionally some have tried to omit it with me and have found out to their cost!

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Please (not the verb, of course) is classed, according to Bruce Fraser at http://webh01.ua.ac.be/gramis/publications/Vandenbergen_Handbook%20of%20Pragmatics_Pragmatic%20markers_270709.pdf , as being in one of the subclasses of pragmatic markers. This is generally a fine article, but I'd go with the arguments above that please does not automatically change an order into a mere request (rather than with the opposite view stated in this article). I'd put 'please' (along with the non-adverbial and non-adjectival usage of 'kindly') in the 'politeness marker' subclass (though with a different tone, both can be used to convey irritation). Please and kindly are types of what Wikipedia terms 'hedges', devices used to convey politeness or sympathy, to take the potential sharpness out of a statement or command. Not all hedges are pragmatic markers; euphemisms contribute semantic content.

'Would you please just put the injured bird out of its misery' contains four hedging devices: a modal downtoner (which I believe Fraser would claim was a pragmatic marker but not in the concrete - word or phrase - sense; his term here would, I think, be a lexical marker - an indication within the basic sentence structure itself rather than an adjunct), two pragmatic markers, and a euphemism.

Pragmatic markers (words or phrases) are devices used to facilitate (lubricate?) interpersonal communication rather than modify the content of a statement. Some are traditionally known as sentence adverbials, comment clauses; a more recent term for some is sentence connectors.

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Per M-W, "please" is:

—used as a function word to express politeness or emphasis in a request

It expresses politeness, regardless of whether the request is meant to be optional or not.

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Please simply indicates politeness or friendliness here; it changes nothing about the validity or legality of the underlying request. It is intended to signal that the official is being more polite than absolutely necessary, and it is human nature to be more cooperative with someone who is polite than someone who is not.

If you go to a restaurant, you aren't required to say please and thank you to the waiter but you probably will, for the same reason.

From a certain point of view, you do have the option to refuse. The consequences for that refusal are probably unpleasant, however, which is why the official can afford to use a gentle rhetorical question instead of an imperative, and why you get better service from a waiter who wants to please you as opposed to one who is merely afraid of losing his job.

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