What Your Students Need To Know About Thanking In English

Alex Case
Things to teach to students of all levels about the most important kind of politeness.

Although their pronunciation might be far from most native speaker standards (the English expression has become “sankyuu” in Japanese), students can usually say “Thank you” and make themselves understood. However, since this is perhaps the word with a “th” sound that they will most use, teaching thanking language might be a good time to make sure they can pronounce it, at least when making a real effort to do so. More seriously, flat intonation can make them sound rude, and all of the thanking phrases and responses you teach them will need some intonation practice to make their thanks sound genuine and polite. You could also do some sentence stress practice with “Thank you”, “No no no, thank YOU!”

Other thanking words and phrases you might want to teach them include the more informal examples “Thanks” and “Cheers”, and maybe even “Ta”. “Thanks” can be extended with “a lot” and “Ta” with “very much”, but “Cheers” doesn’t take any lengthening expressions like these. Like “Thank you” and “Thanks”, however, it can take “for all your help/coming all this way/lending me your umbrella etc.”

With “Thank you”, you can add “very much” or “so much”. Students are often not aware that “so” is stronger that “very much”, especially when it is stressed and lengthened, as in “Thank you sooooooooo much”. Longer and more formal phrases using the word “thank” include “I/We would like to thank you for…”, “Please accept my/our thanks for…” and “I really can’t thank you enough for…”

Possibilities without the word “thank” include “I would like to express my gratitude for…”, “I am very grateful for…” and “I really can’t express how grateful I am for…” Students may overuse forms like these because of translation from L1, or due to being taught forms that are old fashioned or only used in writing. Similar lines I have found to be overused in emailing include “Thank you for continuing to do business with us” (rare in English, and mainly used when our performance is so bad that we’d expect them not to), “Thank you for your kind attention” (a bit old-fashioned and mainly used in standard letters rather than ones written for individual people) and “Thank you for your co-operation” (mainly used in internal memos telling people about rules).

The last of those examples is often used when “Thanks in advance” would be more suitable and this and the other very specific example “Thanks anyway” are well worth some classroom time.

Students are also likely to be unfamiliar with phrases which don’t include words meaning thanks or gratitude but which mean the same thing, such as “I owe you one”, “That’s (really) very kind of you”, “You’re a lifesaver/a star”, and “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” They might also need help with uses of “thank” where thanks is not really the meaning, e.g. in “Thanks for the invitation, but…”

“Thanks for the invitation, but…” is often followed by standard kinds of functional language, namely reasons why you can’t make it and suggestions for meeting at another time. There is also a similar structure for thanking more generally, being Thanking phrase + Reason why you are grateful + Future action, as in “Thanks for all your help. I never would have finished it on time otherwise. I’ll do the same for you sometime.”

Students will also need to know how to reply to thanks. Typical phrases include “You’re welcome”, “Not at all”, “It was my pleasure”, “No worries”, “(It was) no problem. (Any time)” and “It was really no trouble (at all)”. There are also particular kinds of functional language that commonly follow replies to thanks, this time being why it was no trouble, an offer of future help and/or suggestion of how the person being thanked can be repaid, e.g. “No worries, I go to the shops every Saturday anyway, so I can do it every weekend if you like. Perhaps you can do the same for me on a weekday sometime.”

Many responses to thanks can actually drift over into refusing the thanks, e.g. “It was really no trouble at all. I actually enjoy washing up. In fact, I’d happily do it every day.” A similar tactic is to turn the thanks back the other person in pairs of phrases such as “Thanks for coming”/“Thanks for inviting me” or “Thanks for a lovely meal”/“Thanks for eating it!” These two tactics are actually very common, as using “You’re welcome” can sometimes sound like “Yes, I really did help you, didn’t I? You really should be grateful for what I have done.”

Thanks are also used in replies to other standard phrases, e.g. “Are you okay?”/“Much better, thanks for asking” or “I was worried about you”/“Thank you for your concern”. These might not always be the same in the students’ L1. Other cultural differences include how differences in status affect what you say and situations in which you do and don’t thank people. For example, many people are shocked by how many times British shoppers thank the shop staff.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub.com
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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