Diane Nicholls

Diane Nicholls

Friday, 30 March 2012

Kindly stop, for me!

Kindly, when used as an adverb, is a tricky word for learners of English, but seems to pose a problem for native speakers, too.

Here are a couple of dictionary definitions:

1 in a kind way

‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said kindly.

2 (formal) used for asking someone to do something, especially when you are trying to hide the fact that you are annoyed: 'Would you kindly stop making that noise?'

2a used for making a polite request: 'Kindly return one copy of the letter to me'

CD-ROM © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2007.

in a way that pleases or is agreeable to the recipient. Now chiefly in polite requests and (iron.) in demands. J.K. Toole Will you kindly go away. A. MacLean If not, kindly refrain from sending pointless signals.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2002

You only have to travel on a plane to be repeatedly kindly asked /requested to return to your seat, fasten your seat belt, switch off your mobile phone etc., etc. But if you are badly in need of the loo, find your seat belt uncomfortable, or are hoping to receive an important last-minute call, the kindness is in your compliance (though it probably is in your interest to comply), not in the announcer's request.

Stay in a hotel or guest house, or eat in a restaurant and you'll see more of the same:

Guests are kindly asked to refrain from smoking inside the property.

Early Bird diners are kindly asked to vacate their tables by 8.30pm

Please note that check in time is from 2.00pm onwards and guests are kindly requested to vacate their room by 10.30am.

What they're asking you to do is to abstain from an addictive habit, eat your dinner quickly and leave, and get up early, pack your bags and get out. Is this kind? Does being asked to do these things please you? Is it agreeable to you as the recipient of the request? No. And in any case, isn't the requestee the best judge of whether a request is kind or not? Claiming that your own request is kind seems rather presumptuous to me.

What they mean is that they (though the passive construction handily allows them not to name themselves) are asking *you* to be so kind as to do all those things you'd rather not do. But would you be so kind as to is a bit of a mouthful, very formal, and doesn't work in the passive construction generally used for these 'kind' requests.

So why don't requesters put their kindlies where they belong? Some do, and I, personally, feel far more inclined to comply with their requests:

We ask guests to kindly check out of the hotel by 10.30am to allow us time to prepare the rooms for the next guests.

Customers are requested to kindly refrain from drinking alcohol in the queue outside the venue.

There, that's much nicer, isn't it? Your kindness in complying is being acknowledged.

So, why all these premature and misplaced kindlies? A few thoughts:

Could it be the spectre of the age-old split-infinitive proscription that makes people hesitate to confidently put the kindly firmly where it belongs, i.e. in between the 'to' and the 'infinitive'? Is to kindly do something another casualty?

Politeness is a huge and fascinating area of English usage, or pragmatics, which has recently been discussed by Stan Carey, Michael Rundell, Orin Hargraves and others on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog Macmillan Dictionary Blog. I wonder whether people are putting their kindlies where they aren't appropriate because they feel the need for an appropriate politeness marker for the grammatical context of their requests? How do you ask somebody to do something in the passive and at the same time signpost that you are being polite? In active requests, we have the wonderfully versatile pleasePlease refrain from enjoying yourself. But if you're using the passive and want to make sure your requestee is aware that you're a nice person really and not really a kill-joy, where is the word that fits? Politely is sometimes used – Visitors are politely asked to observe this request. But, again, isn't politeness something that the requestee should be the judge of, and is using the word politely the same as being polite? For me, it doesn't quite do the job. Rather like those 'Polite Notice: No Parking' signs you see in highly inviting parking spaces – it rankles. Saying it's polite, doesn't necessarily make it so. Are kindly-displacers, in particular in announcements and notices, trying to fill a troublesome lexical gap?

If the gap is the problem and that gap isn't filled soon, this intriguing usage will gain ground – it's catching! I wonder whether dictionary editors will need to include a new sense for kindly in their next editions? If so, what would it say?