The Grammarphobia Blog

Good manners and good English

Q: A lot of people “would like” to do things instead of “wanting” to do them or actually doing them. Examples: “I would like to thank the people who put this event together” and “I would like to apply for the position of assistant pastry chef.” This usage is driving me nuts. I hope you can help me make peace with it.

A: People tell a waiter “I would like (or I’d like) the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts” because it sounds more indirect, hence more polite and less demanding, than “I want the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts.”

Don’t think of “would” here as merely a conditional auxiliary. Think of it as what some grammarians call it, a term of “tentative volition” – that is, a less demanding way of saying you want something.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses this issue in some depth. Take the use of “would” in a sentence like “I would like to see him tomorrow” (vs. “I want to see him tomorrow”) or “Would you tell them we’re here” (vs. “Will you tell them we’re here”).

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say that “would” often “introduces a rather vague element of tentativeness, diffidence, extra politeness, or the like.” They go on to describe “would like” as “more or less a fixed phrase, contrasting as a whole with want.”

This “would”-vs.”-will” business is nothing to get upset about.

In your first example, “would” strikes me as more polite than “want.” And using neither one seems too abrupt: “I thank the people who put this event together.”

I agree, however, that someone applying for a job should show more audacity than to say “I would like to apply for the position of assistant pastry chef.”

In everyday conversation, though, a little politeness goes a long way.

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