Say what you mean
Indirect speech
Indirect speech
Last month, we said that there were times when it was alright to directly say what you mean even if it sounded a little rude. However, that advice was for special situations like when you have to save yourself or someone else from danger.

Now, we are going to swing the other way to see how to be more polite by using indirect speech. When you speak in sentences that are straightforward and to the point, you use direct speech. Indirect speech is the opposite - you purposely use extra words to say things in a way that is just a little more long-winded.

Here are four ways of using indirect speech. In each case, the examples show the difference between the less direct and more direct ways of speaking. Read out the quoted lines aloud and listen to yourself. Then, try using your own words until you like the way your sentences sound.

  1. Add a question or two.
    You want to suggest something to a friend. But, you are not sure whether she is ready to hear it. Try adding a question before or after your main sentence. You can also convert your main sentence itself into a question.

    More Direct: "You should clean your dirty fingernails."

    Less direct: "May I make a suggestion? Why don't you clean your fingernails more carefully?"

    Doesn’t the second way of speaking sound more polite? Also, the first question gives your friend time to get ready for your suggestion.

    Notice what happens when the words "more carefully" are added. In the first version, you are hinting that your friend never ever cleans her fingernails. Simply by adding the "more carefully", you change that to saying that you think she probably does clean her fingernails but just needs to do it better. This makes the second way of speaking kinder than the first.

  2. Sound a bit uncertain.
    You have a very strong view about something. You know that expressing your opinion directly will sound so harsh that others may stop listening to you. What you can do to prevent this happening is to add phrases and change too-strong words.

    More direct: "That is a lousy idea."

    Less direct: "If I may say so, that really may not be such a good idea."

    More direct: "Don't come with us to the party."

    Less direct: "I was just wondering - maybe, you should not come with us to the party."

    More direct: "I hate her."

    Less direct: "I don't think I like her very much."

    The more direct sentences are like verbal punches! Can you see how the less direct ways of speaking soften the blows? When you do that, people might be more willing to listen and to take you seriously.

  3. Hesitate to disagree.
    Most people are happier when everyone agrees with them. When you disagree too directly with someone, that person may feel as though you are attacking him. The same applies when you have to tell someone he is wrong. Adding a couple of words can make a world of difference.

    More direct: "I disagree with you."

    Less direct: "Sorry but I don't quite agree with what you are saying."

    More direct: "You are wrong."

    Less direct: "I'm afraid I need to point out that you might have made a mistake."

    The funny part about using "sorry" and "I'm afraid" in this way is that you are actually neither sorry nor afraid. Anyone who knows English well understands that the two add-ons are not meant to be taken literally. Instead, they are there to make your sentences gentler.

  4. Soften your commands.
    When you are giving an order that people have to obey, you can choose to say it in a nicer way. In each of the two examples here, even with a "please", the more direct version does not sound as kind as the less direct one.

    More direct: "Please carry these books."

    Less direct: "Would you like to help me to carry these books?"

    More direct: "Please get out."

    Less direct: "Would you mind stepping out of the room?"

    As with the earlier examples, the listener is not supposed to take the less direct versions too literally. You are not asking whether the person likes carrying books. You are not even asking whether the person likes helping you. Rather, you are politely but firmly giving an order to carry books.

    Likewise, you are not asking whether the person minds leaving the room. You are giving a command: the person must leave. When you use the more indirect ways of speaking, people are less likely to see you as being too bossy by pushing them around. Instead, they would feel respected.

    Using indirect speech in these four ways takes practice. To do it well, you would first have to appreciate why anyone would purposely use more words instead of less. It is because, when used properly, indirect speech lets you say what you mean with more grace and elegance.

The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.