There are many polite ways to ask someone if they need your help or guidance, but when is the right time to say, “How can I help you?” and is it grammatically correct?
It is correct to say, “How can I help you?” to ask someone if they need your assistance. We use this expression in formal and informal language when we want to show another person that we can help them in some way. For example, we frequently use “How can I help you?” when assisting customers in business.
In this article, we look at the best way to use “How can I help you?” along with what it means and when to apply it in verbal and written language.
What Does “How Can I Help You” Mean?
We use “How can I help you?” when asking an unfamiliar person if they need help. It is an offer to assist someone for the first time by providing a service or advice to achieve an end, whether verbally or in writing (source).
We use “how” in direct and indirect questions in English grammar to find out “in what way.” For example, the words “can I” ask whether we will be able to do something.
For example, when you visit a store and a salesperson approaches you, they will generally say, “Hello, how can I help you?” The word “how” implies that the person asking the question may have the capacity or information to assist or give us the solution, while “can I help” is asking permission to assist.
They aim to provide information or advice on a particular product or service of interest.
How Do You Use “How Can I Help You”?
We use “How can I help you?” when offering to help another person we meet for the first time. We don’t generally use it with people we know well, such as family and friends. Instead, we say, “How can I help you?” as a respectful and polite way to assist when there is unfamiliarity.
This question is familiar in a business environment where a sales representative approaches customers to offer their help or expertise. For instance, when browsing through the computer aisle at an electronics store, a sales assistant will likely come up to you and say, “Hi, how can I help you?”
Using this expression, they try to facilitate or influence the buyer’s decision by recommending specific products.
We can also use “How can I help you?” when approaching an unfamiliar person who needs help with something but we are unsure about the particular type of aid we can provide. “Can I help” means asking a stranger if we can help them, depending on whether our abilities are helpful in that situation.
For example, when you hear someone asking for directions, you can say, “Hi, how can I help you?” Here, we use the expression in a casual but polite manner. However, in everyday language, you can say, “Can I help you?” as an alternative.
How Do You Answer “How Can I Help You”?
Offering to help someone is a humble gesture, and if someone asks, “How can I help you?” the best way to respond is with a polite and friendly tone about whether you need assistance.
For example, if a sales assistant approaches you in a store and asks, “How can I help you?” you can reply with the following if you are interested in their help:
- I would like to
- I am interested in
If you are not interested in further assistance, the responses below are suitable:
- Thank you, but I’ll let you know if I need help.
- I’m not interested in any help at the moment; thank you.
The responses mentioned above are acceptable in both formal and informal language. For example, if someone were to ask, “Can I help you?” you may respond with a simple “Yes” or “No,” but the addition of the word “How” implies that we are looking for more than a “yes or no” response.
When Can You Use “How Can I Help You”?
You can use “How can I help you?” when you offer help to a stranger who appears distressed or undecided about something.
We say, “How can I help you?” in the present tense and in both formal and informal settings. We also use this expression in verbal and written language.
When contacting customer support or a support chat online, you often hear “How can I help you?” in business. But you may also hear it in everyday life, for example, when responding to an older gentleman sitting on a park bench as he calls out to you. You may walk over to him and say, “Hi, sir; how can I help you?”
In an informal setting, we can use this sentence when assuming that a person we don’t know needs help.
We often confuse “How can I help you?” with “How may I help you?” but the latter means it is clear that another person needs help, while the former only assumes that someone needs help.
“How can I help you?” is not common in written language, although we might find it in response to a professional query when relatively little information is available.
Instead, you use this expression in the present tense; for example, in a live online service where a virtual salesperson might ask, “How can I help you today?”
Using “How Can I Help You” in a Full Sentence
“How can I help you?” is a question and a type of sentence followed by a response to our request for information. It contains the subject “I” and “can” as the verb.
“How can I help you?” is a question that requires an answer to obtain the information you are looking for (source). This is different from a statement or fact in which no follow-up response exists.
When using “How can I help you?” in a complete sentence, we can add different phrases to the end for details.
For example, you can add a prepositional phrase:
- “How can I help you with this?”
Or you can add an adverb:
- “How can I help you today?”
Moreover, you can add an interjection at the beginning like this:
- “Woah, look out! How can I help you balance this load better?
Here, we follow the interrogative clause with a verb.
Finally, we can add a casual greeting to the beginning of the sentence, such as:
- “Hey, how can I help you?”
- “Hi, how can I help you?”
You can see that “How can I help you?” is a standalone sentence that makes more sense with an answer that provides the details we need.
When Not to Use “How Can I Help You”
We do not use “How can I help you?” when we speak to people we know. However, when meeting someone for the first time, it is appropriate to offer your assistance.
If someone asks you for help, it is not suitable to respond with “How can I help you?” because we only use it in anticipation of their question. Notice how the following is incorrect, so you should switch the order:
- Customer: “I’m struggling to find your USB hubs.”
- Sales Assistant: “How can I help you?”
A typical example of when not to use “How can I help you?” is when a person you know very well – such as a friend, relative, or colleague – needs assistance. You’ll say, “Can I help with that?” or “Do you need help?” instead.
What Can You Use Instead of “How Can I Help You”?
There are many helpful expressions we can use instead of “How can I help you?” including “How may I help you?” and “Can I assist you?”
In business, we use a formal tone when approaching customers to ask if we can help them. Let’s explore a few examples of formal alternatives to “How can I help you?”
- May I help you?
- Is there something I can do for you?
- How can I assist you?
- How may I help you?
- Can I be of assistance?
When you offer someone you don’t know help, we casually ask if we can assist them. Some informal ways of saying “How can I help you?” include:
- What do you need?
- Do you need any help?
- Let me know if you need anything.
- Would you like some help?
- Can I help you?
In English, the tone we use to express some of these questions and statements can influence the delivery of the message. For example, when one politely asks, “Can I help you?” it comes across as helpful. But if one uses an annoyed or abrupt tone, it may be offensive.
So, when offering assistance in casual and formal settings, always use a polite and friendly tone.
When we ask someone we don’t know well for help in English, it is polite to use an indirect question. For example, we wouldn’t say, “Where is the hotel?” to a stranger because this is too direct. Instead, we ask, “Would you please show me where the hotel is?” which is an indirect question.
For indirect questions, the subject and verb order remain unchanged, and the sentence maintains its positive form.
Indirect questions include an introduction and a positive sentence form with a question word (source). For example, to form an indirect question, you start with an indirect expression such as:
- Can you help me…?
- Can you let me know…?
- Have you got any idea…?
Next, you add a question word including “how,” “what,” “when,” “where,” or “why.” Let’s look at an example:
- Can you let me know when the store opens?
“Can you let me know” is the introduction, while “when” is the question word. Indirect questions help us form polite questions.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
To learn how to thank a person who gives the same service regularly, read our article Is It Correct to Say “Thank You As Always”?
“How can I help you?” is a well-known polite question when asking strangers if they would like our help. It is an assumption that an individual requires assistance and that we can help them somehow.
Polite expressions help us communicate in a friendly manner making people more receptive to our queries and needs. Always be courteous and respectful when offering assistance or asking for help.