Definition Of Business English. Continued
§ 4. The only question is, can effective English expression be taught? Are not some people born with the gift of the gab, as our Scotch friends put it, while others are born dumb! If you happen to be born dumb, what is the use of trying to be loquacious? Well, this is a day when even the literally dumb are taught to talk. And those who are only metaphorically dumb are not to despair. In one sense, nothing can be taught. Unless there is capacity, there is no use trying to pour in. Unless there is latent power, there is no use trying to coax it out. But the unsuspected presence of latent power is precisely the thing that is always surprising teachers. And so far as language is concerned, the naturally silent youth is precisely the one who becomes the best talker or writer if he learns to exercise his power. He becomes the best because usually he has the keenest sense of the value of words. On the other hand, the naturally fluent person needs equally to put himself under criticism. He is the fellow who talks so easily that he is always saying what he does not mean. He needs precision.
But how are we to know where English leaves off and business begins? And if we are to learn effective business expression, should we not learn it from business men? Shouldn't we begin at the thought end of the subject, not at the word end?
Frankly, I don't know where English leaves off and business begins. And, frankly, if you can get some experienced business man to teach you the principles of business English, by all means get him to do so. But he should be one who is successfully engaged in business now, and who will teach you the business first and the English incidentally. I fear you will find nobody who answers that description fully. Yet from every business man whom you meet you may learn something. The most valuable things will not be the English phrases that he uses - phrases that you might pick up and use after him, scraps from his feast of reason. The most valuable things will be the character and mental habits of the man as revealed by his words. Don't be a servile imitator of any man. But let each successful business man arouse in you the habit of self-examination. It may easily be that he will unconsciously reveal to you powers of your own which are equally valuable with his, but quite dissimilar to them.
§ 5. Among the secrets of such men's success you will find certain well-defined traits of intellect and will. One man has a gift of making money, another the gift of investing it securely. One has the power of analyzing a business situation so clearly that he makes everybody see it his way. Another has only the power of explaining it better than it was explained to him. One man has tact, another has only persistency.
Now, if our study of business English is to amount to anything, if it is to be really valuable, we must connect it firmly with these fundamental matters of thinking and of character. That is not an easy thing to do, but we must try it. We don't want our study to be, as Hamlet said, a matter of mere words, words, words. The ancient Greek sophists pretended to teach anything to anybody by means of their art of rhetoric. Let us make no such pretense. Let us not deceive ourselves. Let us not be too anxious to draw a line between what is good business and what is good English.
Our third chapter, for example, will deal with the art of making outlines. Taken in one way, that may be a very useless and barren business. Taken in another, it will be precisely what we have referred to above as the power of analyzing a situation. It is a matter of thinking before you write.
It is bad business for a salesman to talk too much about himself and his family, when he ought to be talking the goods before him. That is bad business. Is it also bad English? It is, if English means composition. It is bad literary art. Nothing is less artistic than to drag in what is irrelevant to a given situation. If it is poor architecture to put up pillars where they do not support, it is bad literature to prop up selling-talk with irrelevant babble.
Our task then is to establish as much practical connection as we can between buying-and-selling and certain principles of literary composition. Just what principles we ought to choose is something of a question, since we run the risk of being too elementary in one chapter and too advanced in another. But there is after all only one set of principles in composition, just as there is only one moon in the sky. The moon means one thing to the child, something else to the adult. And precisely as none of us ever quite masters the moon, so none of us ever quite masters an elementary subject like punctuation. The principles of punctuation expand and become subtler as one proceeds, till, as Hawthorne said, pointing becomes an art.
Let us endeavor to establish a vital bond between the principles of good business and the following topics: clearness and interest; the making of outlines; the paragraph; logical connection; punctuation; certain mechanical matters, like abbreviations, the apostrophe, the writing of figures and numerals, italics, quotation marks; compound words and the use of the hyphen; grammatical correctness, including agreement, government, tenses, and verbals; the derivation of certain words and the coinage of trademark names; degrees of dignity in the choice of words; wordiness and brevity; idiom; figures; narration; description; exposition; argument; reports; advertisements; letters.
If we can master these relations and apply them in our writing, our correspondents will know exactly what we mean, and be pleased at the way we put it. They will not be saying: "This is all Greek to me. I wish the fellow would talk English."