Can you read my post?

Is the phrase “can you [do X]?” considered a polite way to request something in written communication on the internet, or perhaps even in American English more generally?

It is a common phrase I encounter in semi-professional communication through e-mails, Slack, etc. It almost always appears without an associated “please”. The most confusing aspect is that, in its typical usage “can you [do X]” is hardly a question with a reasonable yes/no answer (e.g. “can you send me this file?”), it is instead a straightforward request.

I propose the following rule of thumb: ask yourself, is it easy to replace “can you” by “are you able to” without sounding overly sarcastic? If not, then a more accurate way to ask “can you [do X]?” is instead to say “please [do X]”.

I hypothesize that “can you [do X]?” is indeed intended to sound like a less demanding way to request something, by situating the request as a question rather than a command. However, the phrase has a few shortcomings:

  • regardless of intent, it still is missing “please”, (which is important when many small requests add up and eat away at time!);

  • in most contexts it is not really a question.

Can you leave a comment below?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *