Writers toolkit

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton have a grumble

Actions speak louder than words, don't they? If you want your pupils to turn into competent writers, the least you can do for them is to write competently yourself. Likewise for the powers that be in the DfES, who should ensure that everything emanating from the hub of power is impeccable.

One of us recently ordered some material from dfes@prolog.uk.com - a wonderful service, so we're not knocking the product.

What we are knocking is the automatic reply (which you'll have seen too if you ordered from that address): "Thankyou for your email, which is now receiving attention. The number attached to this response is for your reference, this is not your customer or order number, these will be forwarded to you shortly" OK, it's just an automatic response - but that doesn't mean it was written by a computer; it was written by a person who should have known better. "Physician, heal thyself!" The DfES should be able to set a model of good literacy. So what exactly are we grumbling about?

From left to right we find problems at the levels of word, sentence and text.

First, "thankyou", written as one word, is the noun, as in "I did it as a thankyou for the party". If you want to use it as a kind of verb, it's written as two words: "I thank you fora" or, more usually, "Thank you fora" Second, the comma splice in the second sentence - in fact, the two comma splices in this one sentence. We can see why the author decided to group these three clauses together, but a mere comma just isn't up to the job. Semicolons would at least have been grammatical, but the basic problem is that the structure is too flat. If these three facts are related to each other, why not make their relations explicit?

This brings us to our textlevel grumbles. What, exactly, is this message trying to tell us, and why?

The difference between reference numbers, customer numbers and order numbers may not strike us as of paramount importance, but the message-writer takes it seriously. Fair enough. But is it really necessary to say that they're different, as in "this is not your customer or order number"? Don't the different names ("customer number", "order number") imply this clearly enough for most readers?

And last, all those demonstratives ("this response"a "this"a "these"a) - very confusing.

So how about this as an improved version? "The number attached to this response is for your reference; your customer and order numbers will be forwarded to you shortly."

And, incidentally, we've added a full-stop at the end.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College London

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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