It touches a chord, for there can’t be many people who haven’t at least once got into trouble for using the wrong word. I know I have. Despite the fact I tend to be fastidious about words and don’t use them flippantly or carelessly. I remember the hard time I had years ago explaining to an irate girlfriend that the adjective I had used about her, ‘intractable,’ was meant to acknowledge, indulgently and approvingly, her independent bent of mind, rather than to describe her as cussedly contrary all the time.
English of course is a tricky language – far trickier, for example, than Spanish – and can easily trip up people like me making the transition from an Asian language. Its rhythm is quite different, and adjectives and especially adverbs weigh it down much more than the Hindi or Bengali speaker would realize. Worse, people who work in offices, factories and sales centers have concocted a monstrous thing called ‘business English’ which bears no relationship with the language. Letters begin with “with reference to your communication of the 15th instant” and “we are in grateful receipt of your recent intimation” and quickly create a fog of clumsy verbiage. Of course, there is no such parlance as business English; there is only good English and bad English. I created a sensation in my office by writing two-word letters like “We agree.” and “Any progress?”
I received a steady stream of letters in my work where the authors appeared unwittingly to have stepped into a minefield. When they felt some urgency and wanted a quick reply, they wanted “to illicit an early response.” I could not of course give an illegal or illicit response, but, inferring that they wanted to “elicit” a fast answer, I replied as soon as I could. Because my job had a lot to do with the chemical industry, I found my correspondents had a lot of difficulty separating “comprise” from “compose” and spoke of a chemical item “composing” esoteric elements. I tried to explain to a colleague that Bach, Brahms and Beethoven “composed” symphonies and their symphonies “comprised” different movements.
When a laboratory chief wrote me to “precede” with a change we had talked about, I had a momentary confusion before I realized that he wanted me to go ahead or “proceed” with the innovation – possibly ahead of other priorities. Another colleague, a manufacturing guy, referred to a raw material shortage and remarked, “I happily except your suggestion;” I thought he was taking exception to my suggestion until I deduced that he meant to “accept” my proposal.
A supplier, whose order I had to reduce, confused me by saying, “Our business will be greatly effected” which I first took to mean his business would become more effective; reflection suggested that he meant his business would be badly “affected.” More disconcerting, when a female executive I knew only slightly wrote a pleasant note, starting with “I wish to complement you,” I was baffled, for it sounded faintly erotic, until I realized she wanted chastely to “compliment” me.
Even if a word is not wrong or misapplied, I have never understood why business letters and reports are full of multi-syllable Latin-sounding words that give me the feeling that I am eating good cous-cous and finding stone chips in it. Executives seem to think it unacceptably simple, for example, to use the verb “use.” Invariably it is replaced by the pompous “utilize” – which is better used for “use in a tactical manner.” As hard to understand why executives choose “expeditious” instead of “quick,” “commence” or “initiate” instead of “begin,” “modification” instead of “change,” “equitable” instead of “fair,” and “elucidate” instead of “make clear.”
I wish business correspondence would be a little simpler -- easier to read and understand. There is no reason our language has to be so dense and hard to digest. See, I nearly used the word “intractable.” But I have learned my lesson.