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Frequently, in spoken dialogue one hears the above phrase used as a suggestion to the listener (or sometimes more strongly, as a command):

  • Why don't you give me that book?
  • Why don't you go to the store and get some more milk?
  • Why don't you make me a sandwich?

In these examples, the speaker is clearly not asking for the reason the listener is not doing the action in question. It's true that the listener is not actually doing the action (yet), but there is no particular reason for the inaction. The listener is simply unaware of the speaker's desires.

In the instances above, "Why don't you ..." could be replaced with "Would you ..." and the meaning would be the same. The latter sounds more natural to me.

What is the origin of the "Why don't you ..." phrase and when did it come into use? Is this a regional usage?

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  • Actually, "Why don't you..." in most cases could be reduced even further to "Please...". – brasshat Sep 9 '14 at 3:50
  • 2
    If someone says why don't you to me, I explain why I don't. – andy256 Sep 9 '14 at 5:35
  • Why don't you for Brits of a certain age... – Andrew Leach Sep 9 '14 at 6:27
  • If you particularly want to reduce it further, simply state the command. "Give me that book." – Fattie Sep 9 '14 at 7:45
  • I think it's less of being a direct command and more provoking the thought of the listener, and when they can't find a good reason to refuse, they'll promptly do what you asked. – Raestloz Sep 9 '14 at 9:23
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The expression suggests a command especially when used by itself with a question mark at the end. When used as in the sentences you show it suggest more a kind of polite request (much more common ) . Both usages dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and their usage has been increasing since then especially as a polite request form.

Why don't you?

  • a question tag that is put onto the end of a command.

    • Andy: Move aside, why don't you? Bob: Okay. Sorry. I didn't know I was in the way. "Just keep bugging me, why don't you?" threatened Wally. Andy: Try it again, why don't you? Sue: I hope I get it right this time.

Source: McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.

NgramWhy don't you

Ngram Why don't you?

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  • The ngrams don't really work. They only seem to surface why do not you literally. That is not the common phrase. – bib Sep 9 '14 at 12:10

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