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November 10th, 2004

When not to say please / city and state or City and State?

by Barbara Wallraff

A. Colin Wright, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “Not long ago you wrote that you couldn’t imagine a situation where it would be wrong to use ‘please.’ I must disagree, for I find this word is frequently misused. While it is correct for polite requests, it is surely not appropriate for simple instructions or warnings. Matchbook covers often have the warning ‘Please close cover before striking.’ My car tells me, ‘Please refuel.’ ‘Please keep off the grass’ might be appropriate, but ‘Keep away from the edge’ at the top of a cliff is a hardly a request at all.”

Dear Colin: Good point. I had in mind that we could do with more politeness in our lives rather than less, but never mind -- you’re right. “Please” would be worse than useless in a sentence like “Please watch out -- that maniac in the SUV is trying to run you over!”

Even “Please have a nice day” is silly -- and this is just a pleasantry, not an instruction or a warning.
The reason “please” is often misused, I think, is that many of us feel uncomfortable commanding others outright or being commanded. Doesn’t “Watch your step” seem rude? But “Please watch your step” suggests that whoever wrote or says it cares about you and doesn’t want you to fall. People writing on behalf of corporations tend to be especially careful not to sound bossy -- hence your car’s “Please refuel.”

How can we tell when “please” is appropriate? A rule of thumb might be: Whenever you’re tempted to say “please,” ask yourself whether you’d be likely to follow it up with “thank you.” If so, the word is appropriate. (“Please respond. Thank you.”) But if it’s the other person who ought to be thanking you in response (as in “Keep away from the edge!” “Thanks for the warning!”), “please” isn’t needed.

Joyce McKenna, of Oak Park, Mich., writes: “‘The person lives in the city of Southfield.’ ‘The person lives in the state of Michigan.’ Is the ‘c’ in ‘city’ or the ‘s’ in ‘state’ capitalized? I say no. Almost everybody here at work is ganging up on me and says yes.”

Dear Joyce: Let’s gang up on them. The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style will join us. The AP Stylebook is the most widely used reference source in America for questions like yours. It tells its users to lowercase the word “state” in “all ‘state of’ constructions: ‘the state of Maine,’ ‘the states of Maine and Vermont.’” It also says, “Apply the same principle to phrases such as ‘the city of Chicago,’ ‘the town of Auburn,’ etc.” The Chicago Manual, another well-respected usage guide, gives “the state of Washington” as an example of proper style.

These reference books are, naturally, in favor of capitalizing the “c” in the likes of “New York City.” They disagree about “Washington state,” though. The Chicago Manual gives “Washington State” as a correct example. AP says, “Use ‘state of Washington’ or ‘Washington state.’” Note to A. Colin Wright: You’ll be glad to know that neither book, when giving these rules, says “please.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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