Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Obedient Servant



Most of the work for the websites and blogs is done sitting in front of the computer screen. This is all very well in dull, wet or cold weather but during May and into June we have had the very hot and sunny* weather that normally comes in late July and August. We have had extremely hot days, close and humid days that sap the energy, followed by thunderstorms. The sun has shone for days at a time, encouraging us to get out of the house and go roaming, or at least sit outside. Unfortunately it is not possible* to do computer work in the garden, so I make an effort to do some of the background work sitting in the greenhouse which now has a soft sofa in it.

* "sunny" "snowy" Always insert the vowels/diphone

* Omission phrase "it is not poss(ible)"


One day I was sitting in there reading an old book on business letters*. It is an American book from 1937 so the examples under discussion were entirely different and much less formal than what would have been* written in the UK at the time. Parts of it were more amusing than informative, as it had pairs of paragraphs side by side*, what to write and what not to write. The “not” side was truly* awful and I could not believe that such ghastly* letters could ever have been considered, written or sent*  but apparently they were, although the author of the book would have chosen the worst of their kind for the examples. Many of them were sales letters and the arrogant tone of their exhortations to buy the products today, right now, without delay, was further embellished with the insistence that the customer’s best interests were being considered above all else. All this did nothing to hide a frantic* desperation to get the sale and hopefully the repeat business.

* Omission Phrases "biz(ness) letters"  "side (by) side"

* Omission Phrase "would (have) been" This is quicker and clearer than writing "have" with N Hook for "been" because of the sharper angle

* "truly" "utterly" Always insert the first vowel

* "sent" Above the line, to provide extra distinction from "send"

* "ghastly" "ghostly" Always insert the first vowel

* "frantic" Note that "phrenetic" is written with a halved N


The other type of quite ludicrous letter was one written in an attempt to appear knowledgeable* and well-educated, replacing normal short words with the longest* and most obscure that could be found in the dictionary. It is true that English does have a large range of terms for roughly the same thing*, and one can replace most words and phrases with more formal, stilted or even archaic versions, depending on how one wishes it to be received. You can write a letter or a missive, you can get a well-paid job or procure a position with a generous remunerative package. You can write fast shorthand or engage in flights of stenographic rapidity. The letters in the book were not as mild as that but pretentious, haughty, grandiose and just plain pompous, and seemingly written with a desire to show that the writer had taken the trouble to raid the thesaurus on a massive scale. This would be a sign of deference to a higher and more intellectual authority, the office boss who has the power to accept or reject the application. Whether the applicants intended to keep up this level of effort once in employment is another question*.

* "knowledgeable" Always insert the triphone in "enjoyable" to differentiate. If necessary, insert the first vowel in "knowledgeable", even though contractions do not take vowels

* "longest" Alternative outline that omits the hard G sound

* "same thing" Do not phrase these, as that would look like "something"

* "question" Optional contraction


It was a relief to see that the good versions offered were a little more like what we write today, although our present-day letters are even briefer and sparer. We no longer give in to, as the book puts it, “the temptation to wax facetious” and we “omit from the subject-matter any suggestion whatever of exaggeration, presumption*, aggressiveness and overzealousness”. Anything other than the basics just takes up everyone’s time unnecessarily, and extra words and repetitions only serve to confuse rather than clarify. Promotional urgency is still with us, though, in those eye-catching advertisements with huge thick fonts, giant red letters against a bright yellow zigzag splash background and three exclamation marks. At least those are generally* impersonal leaflets and not someone’s idea of what to send us in reply* to our own calm enquiry about a product or service. Thankfully we no longer end our business letters with “your obedient servant”, a term you should now reserve for your mind and hand when requiring them to recall and write the shorthand outlines.

* "presumption" Uses the M stroke, omitting the lightly sounded second P

* "generally" The basic outline includes the "-ly" version, but here a distinction needs to be made, so add the L stroke

* Omission phrase "in (re)ply"


My session of amusement mixed with repulsion at the letters was swiftly brought to an end by a loud bang on the glass. I looked up and saw the culprit rapidly flying back out of the greenhouse. A blackbird had blundered through the open double doors, over the top of the parasol in the doorway, hitting the glass at the rear with a thwack. Something must have spooked him whilst feeding on the lawn, causing a sudden high-speed escape. I am glad to say that he was not hurt and he landed on the fence opposite. I closed the book and found it much more* pleasant to sit and watch the birds for a while, than to wonder how miserable and tiresome it would have been* for the office worker to spend each day receiving, filing, typing and endlessly* reproducing those embarrassingly overconfident sales letters. (817 words)

* Omission phrase "much m(ore)"

* Omission Phrase "it would (have) been" This is quicker and clearer than writing "have" with N Hook for "been" because of the sharper angle

* "endlessly" Note that "needless" and "needlessly" have full strokes N and D, in order to differentiate

If you are working from the New Era Instructor book, you will come across several archaic terms and phrases once used in business letters a century ago, such as "esteemed favour" "beg to remain" "we are obliged for your letter" "in reply to yours of 11th ult/inst/prox" and more are listed in the "Business Phrases" chapter. This has all been carried forward from earlier versions of the Instructor, which was first written in the 19th century. It is a waste of your time and effort to learn this obsolete terminology or the shorthand phrases for them and you should cherry pick the few that are still useful.