Home > language > What Happens When the People in Charge Don’t Know What They’re Doing

What Happens When the People in Charge Don’t Know What They’re Doing

Thursday, January 20, 2011, 18:12 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

I work for a large corporation. We are not a magazine, newspaper, or publisher of English textbooks. The people who work here are not writers or editors. But those whose jobs require written communication with customers are expected to be able to write a coherent letter. When I applied for my job here, I had to submit a writing sample.

Alas, not everyone is a grammar whiz, and we collectively make our share of mistakes. The powers that be decided to address the problem by standardizing the content of routine letters we send to our customers and others outside the company.

Apparently, the text of each letter and any situational add-on language undergoes multiple levels of revision for accuracy, clarity, and consistency—including ultimate review and sign-off by a committee—before it is made available for use by the minions. You would think that such scrutiny would result in high quality output, but you would be wrong. The following paragraph made it through the process:

<Title> <Last_Name>, if you have questions about your claim. I can be reached at toll free <1-000-000-0000> extension, <00000>. We will identify your claim by your Social Security number or claim number, please have one of these numbers available when you call.

I consider myself a better-than-average writer with a better-than-average mastery of the English language, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I am pretty sure, though, that the answer to the paragraph above is, “DEAR GOD, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!!!” So few words, so many horrific examples of poor grammar and punctuation. Was there anyone on this committee for whom English was a first language? I take that back: as an ESL tutor, I can state with confidence that the two students I’ve had, both of whom tested at a low to intermediate level of English proficiency when they started with me, would sooner die than make such errors. A dependent clause left twisting in the wind, a misplaced comma, two independent clauses joined by a comma rather than a conjunction or semi-colon. If I ever wrote something so shoddy, my sixth grade teacher, Sr. Mary Ethel, would roll over in her grave.

This afternoon, I sent a polite email to my office’s liaison to the letter committee. I pointed out the offending text and suggested corrections, which I can only hope are made. The problem is that the people who wrote and approved the text in the first place probably won’t think the corrections are any better than the original.

If that happens, I will have no choice but to continue my lonely struggle to rid my little corner of the world of bad grammar, one edited letter at a time. It’s the least I can do for Sr. Mary Ethel.

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