As one of the largest online learning platforms, we get asked a lot of questions about English grammar. Today we’ll explain the difference between requests which start with “Would you” and those which start with “Could you.” For example:
Part of the confusion comes from the fact that textbooks, courses, and native speakers disagree on this issue. Here are three explanations you’ll usually come across:
So how are English learners supposed to know which one to use?
To solve this mystery for you, we consulted some large libraries of spoken and written English and asked native speakers around our company. Below are our findings and advice.
When we looked at the data, we found the following.
In formal situations:
And in informal situations:
So it seems that “Would you” and “Could you” are often interchangeable. However, “Would you” is more common in formal English and “Could you” is more common in casual, everyday situations.
At this point, some students might think, “So ‘would you’ is more polite, right? I’ll just use that from now on.” However, that’s not what the data says. “Would you” isn’t more polite. It’s simply more formal.
Politeness ultimately depends on how the listener interprets what you said, and given the data and our own experiences, we can guarantee you that most people will not notice which word you choose to make a request, let alone interpret it as rude.
When we polled our team, we also didn’t get the impression that people automatically found “would you” more polite. For example, here are two responses we got:
“I actually don’t use ‘Would you’ by itself to make requests. I’m more likely to be more indirect and ask ‘Would it be possible to … ?” - Chris 🇳🇿
“I don’t actually think to say ‘would you,’ as I don’t want to sound passive-aggressive. I searched through my email and did find one instance where I used it for a request, but that’s nothing compared to the 400+ emails where I used ‘could you.’ - Frances 🇺🇸
So if you’re truly worried about politeness, focus on more important things like your tone of voice. This is also what experts at Merriam Webster and the Chicago Manual of Style say.
And if you want to refresh your memory of advanced English grammar, check out our lesson on this topic, ”If I could cook, I would cook every day” with one of our tutors. Happy learning!