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Please in the Passive Voice

The word please is so ubiquitous that one hardly gives a second thought to how it is used––and whether there may have been a change in how it is construed in its status as a verb. Here is how the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2006) defines it:

v. tr.
1. To give enjoyment, pleasure, or satisfaction to; make glad or contented.
2. To be the will or desire of: May it please the court to admit this firearm as evidence.

v. intr.
1. To give satisfaction or pleasure; be agreeable: waiters who try hard to please.
2. To have the will or desire; wish: Do as you please. Sit down, if you please.

When it comes to the use of the passive voice, there is a generational difference applying to the acceptance or rejection of pleased (past passive participle) as uttered by a speaker of inferior status/rank toward an interlocutor of superior status/rank. A member of the older generation will, for instance, tend to reject as impolite (if not impertinent) a greeting by a waiter toward a diner couched in the form “We’re pleased to have you,” since the expression of pleasure by a person rendering service can hardly be relevant to the context of such an interaction, the rank of the waiter being necessarily construed as inferior to that of the customer. But for speakers of the younger generation––as well as generations of older speakers with less finely-tuned sensitivities to matters of rank––such uses of the passive voice of the verb to please routinely pass muster without raising a stylistic eyebrow.

It should be noted that the asymmetric rank relations obtaining between participants in the speech act of significantly different ages can be neutralized and inverted when special circumstances intervene, as in the student-teacher relation. Accordingly, a seventy-one-year-old man being instructed by a twenty-six-year-old fitness trainer could hardly take umbrage at being told that the instructor “is pleased” with his progress.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

 

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