Quote: “I need to see some I.D.” Figaro, speaking to a woman who stole his backpack near Lander, Wyoming.
Figure of Speech: the kindergarten imperative.
When Figaro put his backpack down to visit a waterfall in the Wind River Range, a local band of pack rustlers swiped it. Not an easy thing to do; the pack weighed 45 pounds and the altitude was a breathless 9,000 feet. With the help of a fellow hiker, Figaro found his pack, the thief (an extremely fit 22-year-old woman), and the thief’s mother. Not knowing what else to say, Figaro resorted to copspeak. To his astonishment, the woman handed over her driver’s license. Figaro turned it in to the police when he hiked out next morning.
“How’d you get this? What did you do to her?” a detective asked him.
“I didn’t do anything. I said I needed to see some I.D.”
Slate’s word maven, Ben Yagoda, refers to this increasingly popular device — “I need you to do this” in place of the simple command “Do this” — as “the kindergarten imperative.” It replaces the harsh old imperative mood with a request to meet one’s needs; e.g., “I need you to put down your crayons now.” The figure is brilliantly rhetorical, he notes, because it “psychologizes directives,” turning commands into appeals to empathy. On the down side, it wimpifies speech. Without the imperative mood, Yagoda says, “the Ten Commandments would be the Ten Suggestions.”
Of course, when the suggestion is made by a red-faced, packless hiker, it can look a lot like a command.
Snappy Answer: “I don’t need more needy people.”