Monday, June 14, 2010

Can I Please Borrow your Car?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Asking for a favor is a necessary part of life, no matter what country we live in or what our native language is. From small favors, like borrowing someone’s pencil in class, to big favors, like asking a neighbor to keep an eye on our home when we are on vacation, we are constantly requesting assistance from the people in our lives. However, HOW we ask for favors differs vastly from culture to culture.

This can cause problems for students who are trying to ask for a favor in a native English-speaking culture while following the rules of their native language culture. Although the student most likely intends to be polite when asking for a big favor, if he/she is not following the steps we have come to expect in English favor asking, the request might sound too demanding or even rude. The problem is that most text books don’t teach students how to formulate a request for a big favor. While it is perfectly acceptable for someone to say, “Can I please borrow your pencil?” it is much too straight forward to ask, “Can I please borrow your car?” without any preamble, even when the “please” is thrown in and a modal is used.

The 8 Steps of a Request

According to linguists such as Trosborg (1994) and Goldschmidt (1998), native English speakers follow several steps when asking for a favor that requires someone to go outside their daily routine in a noticeable way.

  1. Introducing: “Hey! How’s it going?”
  2. Warning: “I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”
  3. Disarming: “I know you are really busy right now, but …”
  4. Giving a Reason: “My husband is out of town and I am having oral surgery and there is no one to pick me up from the dentist afterwards.”
  5. Asking the Favor: “If you are free on Tuesday afternoon, would you mind giving me a ride home?”
  6. Minimizing:  “It should just take about 30 minutes.”
  7. Promising: “I’ll reimburse you for gas.”
  8. Checking – only done with positive responses to the request:  “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

We don’t always use all of the steps, but we pick and choose according to our personal preferences and the relationship we have with the listener. Of course, this is all subconscious. We don’t think, “Okay, now I am going to minimize.” These steps are just an inherent part of how native English speakers have been socialized to ask for a big favor.

Something else worthy of note is the fact that we break basic grammar rules when we ask favors by using the past tense (“I was wondering”) when we very clearly mean the present. As demonstrated by Wigglesworth and Yates (2001), we also use a lot of mitigating words (“just”) to soften the request.

Favor-Asking in the Classroom

It behooves students to learn these steps because pragmatic errors are much more dangerous than grammar errors. If a student makes a grammar mistake, the listener might just think, “Oh, that person is not a native speaker.” But, if a student makes a pragmatic error, the listener probably won’t hear a mistake, he/she may just think the speaker is rude.

Unfortunately, most text books don’t teach these steps and grammar quirks. In my class, I first ask students to think about how they ask for favors in their native language. Then, we watch a video I made of a friend asking me to watch her dogs while she goes out of town. Then, we talk about the steps she uses in the video and why she says what she does. Finally, the students write dialogues in which they ask each other for big favors.

Asking for a big favor is a delicate conversational act. If we don’t explicitly teach students how to maneuver through this linguistic terrain, we may be setting them up for a slew of negative responses.

Goldschmidt, M. (1998) “ Do me a favor: A descriptive analysis of favor asking sequences in American English,” Journal of Pragmatics, 29/2, 129-153.
Trosborg, A. (1994) Interlanguage Pragmatics: Requests, Complaints and Apologies, New York: de Gruyter Mouton.
Wigglesworth, G. and Yates, L. (2001) “Focusing on Mitigation in English,” paper presented at TESOL, St. Louis.


Comment from jumahir
June 14, 2010 at 12:23 pm

tomorrow I will explain this to my students. thanks a lot

Comment from Tamara
June 15, 2010 at 6:35 am

I’m so glad you find this helpful!

Comment from suba suba
June 11, 2020 at 4:08 am

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