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Using Three Forms of "Deber," "Poder" & "Querer" Shows Degrees of Politeness

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/8/2012

Manners matter! When these three verbs, and these three alone, are used as helping verbs, there are three forms each which convey no difference in meaning but a great difference in their tone as indicators of politeness in Spanish.

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    Present, Conditional and Imperfect Subjunctive

    Saying "por favor" is great -- and is usually enough to indicate that the one making a request is being polite, as it should be for anyone listening, but it isn't the only linguistic tool available to Spanish speakers for indicating their degree of urgency or fervor in making a request.

    In English, on the other hand, with its relative dearth of verb forms, saying "please" is about all English speakers have in the lexical arsenal to make a request polite without adding verbiage that makes the speaker seem fawning and ridiculous. This is particularly true where English-speaking males are concerned -- the extra verbosity of earnestness and warmth that a woman might exude makes an English-speaking man seem effeminate. So, in English, to say "please" is polite, while to say "pretty please with sugar on top" -- or even some variants that might be acceptable among adult English-speaking females ("I'll be your best friend..." said in manipulative pseudo-jest tops the list) -- are either left in primary school by males or perceived as effeminate and immature.

    Fortunately for those who speak Spanish, this particular sociolinguistic rift based on the gender of the speaker (or listener's range of responses) is minimized, when it comes to the realm of politeness. The three verbs that are commonly used to express "can" or "could" you, "would" you please or you "ought" to do this and that actually have gradations of politeness that are linked to the tenses used, not to any complementary verbal baggage.

    There are three verbs in Spanish that are commonly used as helping verbs -- followed by infinitives. Interestingly, they have to do with the three aspects of the human psyche: ability or power to do (poder), the will (querer) and moral obligation (deber).

    When these verbs are used in the present, they convey a flat statement which is taken, by reasonable listeners in most situations as a flat declaration, neither impolite or polite -- an observation:

    Debes estudiar más para sacar buenas notas. (You should/ought to study more in order to get good grades.)

    ¿Puedes ayudarme con la tarea? (Can you help me with my homework?)

    ¿Quieres acompañarme al cine esta noche? (Do you want to go with me to the movies tonight?)

    When these same statements and questions are expressed using the conditional forms of the helping verbs, they are taken as being more polite:

    Deberías estudiar más para sacar buenas notas. (You really should/ought to study more in order to get good grades.)

    ¿Podrías ayudarme con la tarea? (Could you help me with my homework?)

    ¿Querrías acompañarme al cine esta noche? (Would you like to go with me to the movies tonight?)

    Finally, in ways that the English language is incapable of conveying, these same statements, with the auxiliary verbs in the imperfect subjunctive, convey the most polite form of statement or request. English translations all fail, because they sound ridiculous. Semantically, these statements, at all levels, are identical. What changes is the degree of politeness.

    Debieras estudiar más para sacar buenas notas.

    ¿Pudieras ayudarme con la tarea?

    ¿Quisieras acompañarme al cine esta noche?

    In a curious twist, it can happen that when Spanish-speakers attempt to translate this most polite form into English, it can sound rude to English ears. Let's try one. The situation, which I witnessed in a bank when a Spanish speaker had a discrepancy in his checking account, was totally botched by the customer service person who did not have a clue that he was trying to be polite and respectful:

    He: There is a problem in my record of checks.

    She: You have a penalty for a late fee.

    He: I know that but, you see, I deposited the money the same day,.... you really, I mean, really should look into this to clear it up.

    That was it. He had said "really, I mean really..." and that was heard as sarcasm, not as politeness. No matter if he had deposited the money after 3 p.m. and just didn't know the rule about when deposits were recorded.

    Poor guy. It was a monolingual woman he had spoken to and she was in no mood to have been spoken to so rudely by a Hispanic male... This happened nearly thirty years ago and I have not forgotten the lesson, but I see examples of it all around me as our country becomes more multiethnic.

    Solution? More charitable ears.