13

Often I ask a question (by e-mail), and precede the question with I was wondering if...

For example I was wondering if you can give me your office hrs?

Why not just simply ask the real question? E.g. "Can you give me your office hours; what are your office hours?"

My purpose for saying I was wondering before the actual question was to avoid the alternative of asking the question blatantly, which may appear inconsiderate to other parties.

The general purpose is to ask a question in such a way that the recipient feels comfortable and respected in order to get the best possible response.

What are some alternative synonyms to: "I was wondering"?

Might someone know of a different, effective approach to asking questions?

  • 3
    "Would you please give me your office hours?" is both polite - better than "Can" - & brief (at least in BrE). Personally, I would also say that abbreviating "hours" by just 2 letters to "hrs" looks lazy after bothering to type "I was wondering if ...". Also, being pedantic, my first (but unexpressed) response to "I was wondering if you can ..." or even to just "Can you ..." is often "Yes, I can. Thank you!" (as in "Yes, I am able to ...")! – TrevorD Aug 18 '13 at 15:19
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    I would appreciate if you could give me... Would you mind giving me... Would it be terribly inconvenient for you if you gave me...(illustrating the typical British hesitancy and embarrassment factor) – Mari-Lou A Aug 18 '13 at 15:20
  • Synonyms are single words. You're looking for a phrase with the same meaning as a given phrase; this question is poorly worded. – itsbruce Aug 18 '13 at 16:19
16

I was wondering ... is an example of what could be termed deferential backshift. Using a past tense makes the request remoter. As Yule, in Explaining English Grammar, states:

Remote potential in social terms creates an impression of less imposition and hence greater politeness.

Note that in such circumstances it would be more usual to use the past tense in the if-clause too:

I was wondering if you could give me your office hrs?

Some of the many alternatives are:

Would it be possible to give me ... ?

Do you think you might give me ... ?

I would be most grateful if you could give me ... .

  • 1
    +1 for adding terminology (I didn’t know it was called that). I would get rid of the question mark in the “I would be most grateful” example, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 18 '13 at 8:28
  • @Janus. Question mark removed, thanks. As for the term, I have edited my answer so as not to imply that 'deferential backshift' is the standard way to refer to use of the past tense to convey politeness or diffidence. But the term is perhaps a little more transparent than 'remote potential'. – Shoe Aug 18 '13 at 8:41
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    The more usual term is 'hedge'. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedge_(linguistics) . There are only two distinct Google hits for "deferential backshift". I won't give the equivalent figures for "hedge" for obvious reasons, but "hedge" + "linguistics" has about 350 000 hits. Many hedges (including 'I was wondering if', 'Would it be possible to' etc) are pragmatic markers, adding nothing to the meaning of the matrix sentence and syntactically omissible (but performing an invaluable social {Collins sense 4b} function). Modals are also often used to hedge (Would / could you please pass ...). – Edwin Ashworth Aug 18 '13 at 13:04
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    Hedging is the generic term for the numerous ways that speakers can convey politeness or deference. An expression such as "I was wondering ... " employs two hedging devices: the progressive aspect and a tense backshift. I came upon the expression deferential backshift in a book a long while ago, but cannot recall which one. It seems like a useful term for the subset of hedging that uses a past tense, which conveys remoteness, as a means of expressing politeness. – Shoe Aug 18 '13 at 14:42
  • Indirect questions and indirect requests beginning with I wonder do not take a question mark as their sentence-ending punctuation, but rather a period instead. – tchrist Aug 18 '13 at 16:26
6

How about

"Would you be so kind as to give me your office hours?"

It is deferential, with its word would, and it flatters the person being asked by implying s/he is kind--and that not giving you the office hours would make him/her unkind!

I'm with you, generally speaking, in that sometimes we are better off simply asking the question. On the other hand, social amenities are OK as far as they go. After all, when asking people a question you are interrupting them and "taking" some of their time, which for all of us is a limited quantity!

Nevertheless, if all you need is the time, simply asking a person

"What is the time, please?"

is preferable to

"I was wondering if you would be so kind as to give me the time."

If you are asking a smart aleck, s/he might simply say "Yes," and not give you the time, until you ask specifically, "What is the time?" Being a bit of a smart aleck myself, I've done that on more than one occasion, especially when the person asking the question says,

"Do you have the time?"

Me: "Yes, I do." I mean for Pete's sake, if they see the watch on my wrist, I obviously have the time, so why don't they ask me

"What time is it?"?

Again, social amenities and customs seem to require a little tact and indirectness, for whatever reason. Again, perhaps the extra words make up for your interrupting the person you are questioning.

Speaking of unnecessary verbiage, why do public speakers (and authors in the prefaces to their books) who want to give thanks to someone, or to a group of people, say,

"I would like to thank Chrissy Jones for her invaluable help . . ."?

instead of saying

"Thank you, Chrissy Jones, for your invaluable help . . ."?

I guess "beating around the bush" isn't confined to the asking of questions!

  • It's nice to see more examples of how to ask without encouraging a simple yes-or-no response. – T. Webster Aug 25 '13 at 4:03
1

If I may/can ask, can you give me your office hours, please?

  • If I can ask, can you give... is not exactly elegant. "If I may ask, could you give me....? OR "If I may ask, would you please give me your...." sound more harmonious IMO. – Mari-Lou A Jan 23 '16 at 13:34
1

Since the OP asked for alternatives to:

I was wondering if you can give me your office hours?

Some more concise alternatives which provide similar deferential/polite context are:

Would you mind giving me your office hours?

Could you tell your office hours please?

Do you mind giving me your office hours?

I'd love to get your office hours

May I have your office hours?

May I have your office hours please?

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 18:30

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