Word Inflation, or Unnatural Syntax?

By Maeve Maddox

Ted Moses sends this example of word inflation in the work place:

The Deputy requested me to send this letter to all staff.”  

I don’t think the problem is that request is too formal for the context. The use of request as a verb meaning “to ask” is common enough in ordinary speech and in the media.

The Government Requested GPS Info From Sprint . .

They requested evidence linking bin Laden to the attacks.

Can a prisoner request anything for his last meal?

However, ask and request don’t always fit the same slots in a sentence. The sentence in the example sounds wrong because the syntax doesn’t work with request.

syntax: the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses) —Merriam-Webster Unabridged

The verb ask is frequently followed by an indirect object preceding a direct object. Ex.
He asked me my name.
He asked them the time.
He asked us to send the letter.
She asked George what he was doing there.

The verb request, however, is generally followed immediately by a direct object. The object may be a single noun or a clause:

They requested seats near the stage.
She requested silence.
He requested that I send this letter.

The “requested me” usage is growing, but it’s not nearly as frequent as “asked me.” I ran one of my unscientific searches to test the waters: “requested me” got 636,000 hits compared to 46,700,000 for “asked me.”

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7 Responses to “Word Inflation, or Unnatural Syntax?”

  • Brad K.

    Maeve,

    “The Deputy” and “all staff” are pretty impersonal. “Me” is quite intimate.

    In addition to the asked me, requested, issue, I find the mixing of impersonal and intimate feels clumsy.

    I assume Deputy is a euphemism for some distinct and understood office, and not just a subordinate to a sheriff somewhere, else I wonder why it is capitalized.

    Contextually, this sentence sounds like some serious, pardon the word selection, butt-covering. I mean, sending something to “all staff” is an imposition; few topics actually concern everyone on staff, so the question of whether this letter to everyone should be reserved to topics significant to everyone. In which case, the direction from The Deputy shouldn’t be needed to imbue the letter with significance.

    The sentence also feels like passive voice. The only action is the request from the Deputy. If I restate the sentence as “The Deputy requests all staff read this letter,” we get away from why “me” is sending it – which feels like distracting information. “I want to send this letter to all staff, by direction of the Deputy.” This version at least avoids the intimate context in the middle of organizational formalism.

    Just thinking. Thanks!

  • Ryan

    What about “The Deputy requested (that) I send this letter to all staff”? I’m not sure you can count an entire clause as a direct object, but it seems to fit the traditional role of “request”. Still some problems with formality, I suppose, depending on personal preference, but I think this works.

    For what it’s worth, in response to Brad K., I work in an environment where this level of formality wouldn’t seem out of place, and certainly wouldn’t be seen as “butt-covering”.

  • Precise Edit

    Yes to all the above. Follow “request” with a noun or noun phrase: “Requested that I send . . . .”

    Can we argue about using “staff” to refer to individuals, as opposed to the entire group of “staff members”? This would give us “to the staff” or “to all staff members” and not “to all staff.”

    (I have a psychic vision of a “no” in my future.)

  • Sylvia

    I am wondering how you do your informal research of the use of “request . . . ” and “ask me?” Do you use a corpus database?

  • naomi hamm

    I go for unatural syntax. the works and words of a professional writer would use it. the other just dismays me……

  • Barry

    @Sylvia She probably just Googled it. Using a corpus database is considered “scientific”, at least in linguistics.

  • Wajid

    I am confused in one sentence on how to change that into passive. The sentence is, Active voice: Give me a pen, please. Some on changed it: You are requested to give me a pen, please. Is that right, if yes how?

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