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The Dark Side of Conditionals: How to offer to do something when you don’t really want to do it…

Sometimes in conversation with a friend or a customer/client it is clear that someone wants you to help them with something, and it is usually then polite to offer to help them with it.  However, sometimes this  maybe something which would take too much time or it would be too difficult, and no-one wants to sound unhelpful.  So how can we offer to do something for someone with a high chance that they will say no? Or if you want to make a serious promise how can we offer to do something for someone with a high chance that they will say yes? Here we have a set of tricks you can use change the way you make an offer or promise, depending on how much you want to really want to do it. Let’s look at some different situations and ways we can do this starting with offers:

Making offers and promises

Take a look at these two offers of help below:

‘If you wanted I could help you’

‘If you want I can help you’

As you can see, both of these sentences are conditionals.  The first one is an unreal conditional, and the second one is a real conditional.  The sentences have slightly different meanings, and can influence whether someone will say yes to your offer or not.

The first sentence means that someone is more likely to say no to your offer, so this is the best sentence to use if you can’t fulfil the offer but you want to be polite and offer anyway.  Because it is an unreal conditional, it kind of means that in the very unlikely event that you wanted help, I could help you. To the listener it can mean that you are sure the other person doesn’t need any help, but you want to ask anyway to be polite.

The main point is that using the unreal conditional, saying ‘If you wanted I could help you’ is much more likely to get a reply: ‘no thanks’.  This can also be used in business:

‘If you wanted us to help you set up the system we could do that for you’

instead of

‘If you want us to help you set up the system we can do that for you’

If you want to offer to do something for a client or a customer to show that you have good customer service, you can increase the chance that they will say no by using the first sentence.  This could be quite useful for maintaining a good relationship with customers

When someone asks you to do something, here are 2 ways to say how possible it will be to do it 

If someone asks you do do something, you can use the modal verbs can and could to express how easy something will be:

I’m not sure if I can cancel the meeting - Suggests you intend to try to cancel the meeting

I’m not sure if I could cancel the meeting - Suggests that you unsure whether you are even going to try to cancel the meeting.  This doesn’t mean that that you are being impolite, it just means you think it may be so difficult to cancel it that you aren’t sure if it is even worth trying.

‘can’ then, suggests that you will try to do something, ‘could’ means it is too unrealistic to do something.

Suggestions

When discussing plans, there may be occasions when you agree only partly with what is being said.  Or, alternatively, you want to make a suggestion which you are not so sure about.  If you are making suggestions, there is a simple way of making your suggestion sound stronger or weaker, again using can and could:

We can try John’s method - wants to try John’s method

We could try John’s method - partly wants to try John’s method

Making suggestions with ‘I think…’

 You can also change the certainty of you suggestion by using different tenses of ‘I think..’

I think we can use John’s method.. - Strongest

I’m thinking we can use John’s method… - Less strong

(present continuous is for temporary situations. So here the suggestion is that it seems like a good idea right now, but that might change)

I thought we could use John’s method - Not so strong

(I thought earlier that John’s method was best to use, but maybe now you can persuade me that I’m wrong)

I was thinking we could use John’s method - Not so strong

(similar to above.  I went through a process of thinking this earlier, but you may persuade me that I am wrong)

 You can also use conditionals to make suggestions:

If we did it this way then it might work’  - weaker suggestion

 ‘If we do it this way then it might work’ - stronger suggestion

Because the first one is a real conditional, it suggests that we may really follow my suggestion.  Because the second is an unreal conditional it means that the suggestion is just a hypothesis and anyone can disagree, so it’s weaker.

This can also be used to make polite suggestions about plans

‘I will bring a ball in case we want to play football later’ - stronger

‘I will bring a ball in case we wanted to play football later’ - weaker

As the first sentence is a real conditional, it suggests we may want to play football later.  As the second sentence is an unreal conditional, it means that you are not saying that people will want to play football later, it’s not in the plan at all, but just in case they do, you will bring the ball.

You can also use conditionals to make negative suggestions:

‘If I did the sales part everything could go wrong’ - It is very unlikely that you will choose me to do it

‘If I do the sales part everything could go wrong’ - You might chose me to do it

Again here, the unreal conditional means that it is less likely that I will be chosen to do it

Here is another situation with negative suggestions:

‘If the plan doesn’t work we can have another meeting’ - Real chance that the plan won’t work

‘If the plan didn’t work we could have another meeting’ - Very little chance the plan won’t work (sounds more confident about the plan)

If you would like to test your knowledge further, why not try our conditionals exercises: Quiz Gap-FillMatch the SentencesWorksheet.

To find out more about conditionals, click here

If you have any area of English that you are struggling with and would like me to write an article about, why not send me an email at david@fluencyspace.com, or message me on Skype at live:fluencyspace! Also if you have any further queries about English, I’m happy to answer your emails!

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 David Cox

 Fluency Space

 Make the world your fluency space. Business English for career and life success

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