Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yaaaaaawn - A Few Words About Business Writing


My brother worked at Salomon Brothers back in the John Gutfreund era (as did I, somewhat later). He toiled as a junior guy in the utilities group in corporate finance, and one of his responsibilities was to write a weekly roundup of financial activity in the utilities industry. If you think this sounds like an unbearably dull task, you would be in agreement with my brother. English major that he was (yes, you could get a job on the Street as an English major in those days), he decided to spice his reports up humor and the occasional quote from a Shakespeare or Henry Miller.

At the time, Henry Kaufman was the head of Salomon’s “publications” committee. In case you’re not familiar with him, Kaufman was the most powerful private economist in the country and known as Dr. Doom for his sunny disposition as much his bearish predisposition. That my brother was being puckish in official Solly publications stuck in the craw of some senior executives, and Kaufman was one of them. The controversy ended up on Gutfreund’s desk, where Gutfreund, an English major himself, responded with two words, the second being “Henry.”

So my brother lived to write another day, and struck a small blow against the forces of tedium. But let’s face it, most writing that comes out of Wall Street offends on two levels: it is bad, and it is boring. Boring is perhaps the greater offense, but let’s start with bad. This begs the question, what is bad English, exactly? Are there rules? Forgive me while I digress a moment.

Well, of course, we all know there are rules, but it turns out not to be that simple. English, unlike French or Italian, is an unregulated language. There have been unofficial efforts over the centuries to impose some linguistic discipline, a history of which is wonderfully told in The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park, by Jack Lynch.

Time was, English was thought even by the English to be the unwanted mutt of languages. The dons at Oxbridge brooked no spoken English in their classrooms, and students could even be fined for speaking English casually. (Sorry, did you just yell, “Toga!” Five shillings, please.) English was a mongrel language inferior to the dignity and permanence of Latin, Greek, or even the romance languages. Permanence was a key notion for the intellectuals who fretted about this sort of thing. A proper language must be a static one with rules that don’t bend to fashion. Linguistic change equates linguistic decay.

As usual, the intellectuals got it wrong. The English language is the most democratic of languages. It welcomes and incorporates change almost constantly. By some estimates, we recently surpassed one million words. French, a language tightly regulated by the Academie Francaise, has about 43,000 words. It is the very openness of our language that has made it the success that it is (with a very large assist, of course, from the openness of our economies).

On the grammatical front, we have rules, as we all know. Where did they come from? Sometimes rules are written by whoever writes them first, which in our case happens to have been by a number of rather stern Latin grammarians between the 16th and 19th centuries. But these rules change too. For instance, does one say, “It’s me,” or “It’s I?” The correct answer is, “It is I,” but unfortunately my ten-year old would get beaten up if he went around saying, “Hello, it is I.” As a result, “It’s me” is on the verge of being accepted as proper English (although it’s not there yet). This will be news to the 99% of Americans who already thought it was.

I can remember walking along a New York street around 1997 and hearing one teenage girl say to another, “I am SO not going to that party.” I remember thinking how stupid and vapid that sounded. Now I wouldn’t flinch. In fact, I think I said the same thing to my wife just the other day when she showed me a black tie charity invitation. Of course, using so like this isn’t anything close to proper grammar or syntax, but the point is it might be soon. In thirteen short years it went from physically hurting my ears to me – er, my - saying it, however ironically.

Those who read these letters know of my disdain for centralized command-and-control economic models. They aren’t adaptive enough to deal with large, complex economies. Independent market forces are always more effective and lead to higher growth rates. It is fascinating to me that this also appears to be the case with language.

This guy is probably as much fun as the average financial industry writer

Where does this leave all the would-be scribes of the financial industry? Well, there is way too much jargon, for one, and an overuse of certain words that offend the ear. Liaise is not a word, nor is there any such thing as a net netImpact has become accepted as a verb (as in, “The new model at Ford will positively impact earnings”), but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. The worst sin, though, is to be boring. Have you ever read a research report? Stultifying stuff, more effective than Nyquil. Most writing on Wall Street is guilty of this. The words simply do not dance off the page.

There are exceptions, of course. I have always liked Barton Biggs and James Grant, for instance. They are frequently wrong as prognosticators, but they do the two things any good writer should do: engage the reader and provoke the mind. I’ve also read some Michael Cembalest from JP Morgan lately, and am impressed.

Do I write correctly? Nah, not even close. I’m overly fond of parentheticals (really!), not to mention the dash. I have no problem with colloquialisms, and I sometimes even start sentences with the a conjunction. But at least I know I am not putting myself to sleep, and therefore – perchance – not the reader as well.

5 comments:

  1. Wonderful! I have a long list of grammatical pet peeves left over from MPS. Less/fewer; there/their; me/my; I/me; I edited many a letter written by MS MDs in my early days. Wish someone was still doing that.

    Love the blog, Scott! Ashley

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  2. I would add that financial writing in general is boring because it is ultimately written by committee. After it has gotten through the lawyers and upper management, it is usually watered down to neutral dreck. By then, it is devoid of any useful (or meaningful) opinion.

    Cheers- FCR

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  3. Fo shizzle dizzle

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