Pamphlets to the Past

One of the more interesting garage sale items I found this past weekend is a booklet titled Business Letters and How To Write Them printed originally as Business Executive’s Handbook in 1937. I love these vintage pamphlets. They are an intimate conversation with history. These authors are speaking to you in the same voice they spoke to their contemporaries. I can learn and marvel at the conventions and manners of the early 20th century without the distortions of nostalgia and history books.

I was drawn in first by the section on stilted business language. The authors advocate a clear, organized and cordial style rather than the use of a special “business” style which “involves the elimination of all friendly feeling from the letter.” I am going to post a partial list of their phrases to avoid and I am pleased to note that their opinions are still valid and still needed:

as per your instructions; attached please find; contents duly noted; regarding your communication; this letter is for the purpose of inquiring; please be advised that; and pursuant to

I recognize every one of these and I may admit to using one or two, but  I refuse to admit to ever using “pursuant to.”

The section on libelous letters is as useful today as the 1930’s. To quote the authors: “The law cannot prevent a person from writing anything he pleases, but it can and often does make him responsible for his statements.” This seems to be good advice today as the seeming anonymity of the internet pushes the boundaries of gossip versus libel. If you insist on commenting about your sister’s bad haircut in your blog, the odds are good that she will discover your perfidy.

In 1937, libel was “defined as a false and malicious publication which tends to injure the reputation of a living person or the memory of a deceased person, and to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.”

However, there were some rules to be applied:

  • If a statement could be proved true it was not libel. If “the reputation of a living person or the memory of a deceased person” deserved to be “exposed to public hatred, contempt” and ridicule, lawsuits were dismissed.
  • Also, “a libelous letter or comment must be communicated to a third party to be actionable.” It has to be read by someone other than the person defamed. Calling your sister ‘a dirty dog’ in the kitchen is not libel unless your mother was there too. This makes a lot of sense as having lawyers in the middle of you and your spouse’s private disputes would be costly as well as awkward.

1937 was the middle of the Great Depression and most of the libelous acts mentioned have to do with bankruptcy, insolvency and dereliction of duties. I suppose that it is libelous to say that corporate CEO’s are ‘dirty dogs’ who cannot be bothered with the ethics of business or concern for the future of their companies, but we can comment on the excesses of their salaries in comparison to our own. As the salaries are well documented and how dirty CEO’s are would depend on how many showers they take in a week.

The rest of the booklet is the standard stuff that we learned in typing class (when there were typewriters–aren’t you glad those clunky things are gone? And those erasers?) about letterheads, datelines, proper forms of address and the complimentary close.  (“I am dear Mr. President, Faithfully yours…” Not quite how we word missives to our elected officials, now huh?)

To me the best part of the booklet was the section called the Dictionary of Correct Usage. One of my pet peeves is the use of “bear” and “bare.” Bare witness has a totally different meaning than bear witness. I keep them straight with this sentence; I don’t know how many times I have had to bear the sight of bare bums when someone wearing low rider jeans leans over. Here is one excerpt from the Dictionary of Correct Usage and my own sentence clarifying it:

accept, except. ACCEPT means to receive with approval, reply to affirmatively, agree to; EXCEPT means to exclude, make an exception to.

I accept your offer to help me with grammar and semantics with the bad grace you would expect. I except your mother from any horribleness resulting from my bad attitude.

Really, people are bemoaning the loss of writing due to the influence of computers and texting and smart phones, but I think people are writing more than they ever have since there is such an eager and vast audience out there waiting to be entertained. At least someone out there in the ether will agree with what you say and even make the same writing errors you do.


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