I would like to ask about respect level languages in English. I was taught to always use "would like to" instead of "want to" to express politeness and respect. However, I am not sure whether this applies to all subjects.

For example, when I write emails to Professor, I am not sure whether I have to use the words "would like" when the subject is the professor/older people. I am sure that this is correct : "I would like to inform you (professor) that I......". But I am not sure about this: "So if professor (or older people) would like me to do this, please don't hesitate to contact me".

What made me doubtful is this: if I put an older person as the subject and me as the object, shouldn't I have to say "want" instead of "would like" since I am younger than the subject? To me, this sentence sounds that I want the subject to say politely and with respect. Please correct me if I am wrong; sometimes I am confused when writing emails to professors.

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, Lynn, tchrist, Janus Bahs Jacquet, Chenmunka Sep 29 '14 at 11:22

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    This is all a matter of opinion and etiquette, not English as such. Debrett's may help you (or a more "language-oriented" style guide), but it's not a characteristic of English that the age of conversants dictates which one uses "want to" and which uses "would like to". If there's any such tendency at all, it's manners, not language. – FumbleFingers Sep 29 '14 at 1:59
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    There are a number of registers, of various types. They help in showing the degree of politeness expected. – John Lawler Sep 29 '14 at 2:12
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    I agree with the others that this is more a question of etiquette and style, and therefore not a good fit for ELU. But in the interest of answering your question: yes, I would use "would like" over "want" to be more formal and polite. – Lynn Sep 29 '14 at 2:34
  • +1 for all 3 comments (FF, JL, Lynn). 1) Age is generally irrelevant for this kind of thing. 2) "would like" is probably what you want to use, in general, when requesting or asking something. – Drew Sep 29 '14 at 3:31
  • This belongs in ELU, because in other languages it is a matter of language. There are words and phrases you use for different respect levels. In English this is much less so - it's a great question, to help people learn about that! – GreenAsJade Sep 29 '14 at 4:00

In English, these matters are very much less significant than in some other languages.

In particular, age plays very little role in determining how to address someone.

The main "determinant" is their position, rather than their age. This is very unnatural for someone from cultures where respect for age is built into the language.

As others have commented, in English there are no specific respect levels built into the language. There is a much less formal system of "etiquette" - informal guidelines about how to use the language politely.

If you say "I would like" in written correspondence to a professor, you sound formal and respectful. It is the safest course. You are not disrespecting the professor to say "So if professor would like me to do this, please don't hesitate to contact me", it sounds much better than "if professor wants me to do this".

Note that using the third person in this context would be odd. Perhaps you were just using the word "professor" there to indicate who the second person is?

"If you would like me to do this, please don't hesitate to contact me" is entirely respectful.


In answer to your actual question, oddly enough "would like" sounds slightly more polite than "want".

"Want" is a bit .. let's say .. "harsh". There's a common phrase "Whaddyawant?" and it can sound like that.

Your logic is completely correct that you don't want to "imply" the senior person would "want" anything from you! But in this case, idiomatically "would like" sounds better. So that's the answer.

To be "more polite" .. "If by chance you would like me to do this, please don't hesitate to contact me". "If there happens to be anything you would like me to do regarding this, please don't hesitate to contact me"

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