April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
A letter written by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1818 is my second-favorite business letter. Vanderbilt was then twenty-four, and he wrote to his employer, Thomas Gibbons, the owner of a ferry that ran between New Brunswick and New York City, about a competitor named Letson. Vanderbilt at that time captained the ferryboat Bellona, and his wife, Sophia, added to the family’s income by running a popular riverside hotel, Bellona Hall, in New Brunswick.
The letter reads: “Last evening New Brunswick wais in an uproar. Letson toald the passengers that retaining them their was all my fait that all I did it for was to get their supper and lodging from them he offered to take 7 of them for 3 dollars each in one of the Line Stages the bargain wais maid and upon reflection Letson flew. Cannot you stop Letsons mouth?”
Like many men who have done well in business, Vanderbilt was not known for the elegance or correctness of his prose. His style was to say what he had to say in the plainest way, just as, in nonliterary matters, his style was to do what he had to do in the most straightforward way. Never again, so far as I know, did he ever ask anyone for help in dealing with a man who had crossed him.
John Jacob Astor is another businessman whose letters fascinate me. He was born in Germany in 1763, emigrated to England at seventeen, and never mastered his adopted language. One biographer reports that he “wrote a wretched scrawl, setting spelling and grammar equally at defiance.” Here is an excerpt from a letter that Astor sent to a business associate in 1798 in the middle of vexing litigation:
”… it is evident that Mr. B. Levingston has not paid that attention to the Busniss which it Requird and has Sufferd those fellawes who are employd against us to get every advantage thy wishd—I am very Sick of the Busniess all the mony I Can muster gos for this Damd businiss it is too much for me to Lay aut of and I Do Sincerley wish you would Sent me Som Cash Soon … if we have no prospect of Success Lets be Done with it at ances and thraugh no more mony away for if no Stop is put to it I shall yet be ruind with it.”
Both Astor and Vanderbilt were selfmade men whose schooling ended early. Though Astor never learned to spell, in his old age he enjoyed the friendship of Washington Irving, and at his death he left four hundred thousand dollars to found a public library in New York City. Vanderbilt is said to have read only one book in his life, The Pilgrim’s Progress , and that in his seventies. “Folks may say that I don’t care about education; but it ain’t true; I do,” he complained once. “I’ve been to England, and seen them lords, and other fellows, and knew that I had twice as much brains as they had maybe, and yet I had to keep still, and couldn’t say anything through fear of exposing myself.”
In the twentieth century the literary deficiencies of unschooled men like Astor and Vanderbilt have given way to the literary deficiencies of the college-educated. In his history of the first fifty years of the Harvard Business School, And Mark an Era , Melvin T. Copeland provides specimens from reports and examinations written by his M.B.A. students at Harvard, the future leaders of American business:
“At this time there seem to be two problems which include many other problems relating to the general problem.”
“This plan was very good so far so it went and that was too far.”
“They should not, I would in their case, and barring one point, I don’t think it matters much what they do so long as they do it with their whole heart.”
“Whether viewed with a futuristic foresight or in retrospect, they point to an enlargement of the functionary aspects of the business; hence a greater degree of risk to try management acumen.”
“His two contributions … have been desirable, but neither is meritorious.”
Founded in 1908, Harvard’s graduate school of business administration was the first business school in the United States to require a bachelor’s degree for admission. The faculty supposed that they could rely upon the “intellectual power” and “cultural background” of college graduates, but they quickly discovered that their students were, in the words of one teacher, ignorant “of the first principles of English composition and even of spelling … deficient not merely in ability to write, but in any standard of decent composition.” In 1914 the school introduced a formal written report program—a program that it intended to discontinue as soon as “students entering the School show such proficiency as to render it unnecessary.” That day has not yet arrived.
One problem may be implicit in the subject matter. Even at the highest level, executives have to spend some part of every day writing memos as tedious as this one: “I wonder if we could get a study made of the arrival facilities for visitors from abroad who come by ocean into New York. I have heard various reports that the docks are cold and drafty. The custom inspectors are cold and the whole appearance is rather bleak. … Do you think you could have a look at this and give me a report?” In this case, the executive is President John F. Kennedy, writing or dictating a memo to the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Treasury on November 19, 1962. Millions of people in business compose memos on subjects this dreary, every day of the business year.
For people who yearn to write memos that shine, even on uninspiring subjects, organizations such as the American Management Association offer workshops with titles like “Business English,” “Better Business English,” “Business Communication,” “Managerial Communication,” “Better Business and Managerial Communication,” and so on. Whatever the title, the promotional literature that advertises the workshop will announce that its purpose is to polish the “oral and written communication skills” of the participants. No one in business would pay a dime for a course that promised nothing more than to teach people how to speak and to write.
The language of modern business is a language of colorless jargon and mindnumbing abstraction. A “process-oriented” executive talks about “inputs,” “outputs,” and “throughputs.” A “product-oriented” executive explains that his industry is “labor-intensive” or “capitalintensive.” Accountants debate the merits of “FIFO” and “LIFO.” An executive with a taste for quantitative disciplines talks about “maximizing,” “minimizing,” “optimizing,” and “satisficing.” Chief executive officers spend their days “strategizing.”
Executives like this language: they think it sounds solid and professional. In fact, it does sound solid and professional. I have seen an entire audience mesmerized by the subtly paced repetition of the phrase “capital-intensive,” as if it were a mantra.
All over the country, in workshops and seminars, people in business are presented with lists of “action words” and urged to write in the active voice. This good advice is one of the reasons that the résumés of people in business all seem to sound the same. If a job applicant claims that he or she “designed, planned, organized, and implemented” a “multi-unit product distribution system for a major local enterprise,” the employer can be fairly sure that he’s looking at another managerial aspirant who delivered newspapers as a child. Language so strenuously polysyllabic is indeed a blunt instrument. I have received memos so swollen with managerial babble that they struck me as the literary equivalent of assault with a deadly weapon.
Sometimes people in business fall in love with their Dictaphones, and communication gets out of hand. I have received memos that begin, “This is to let you know that we plan to schedule a meeting,” and “This is to let you know that we plan to get in touch with you”—as if I could not wait for the plan to happen.
When communication is very important, the people who run American business hire professionals, who charge high fees for providing prose that is immensely readable—so readable, in fact, that it might be viewed as insulting. For instance, here are “sentences” from a full-page advertisement that CIGNA placed in the Wall Street Journal on the day I happen to be writing this article: “Or clean waste disposal.” “Or harmless emissions.” “With their transport.” “Their storage.” “And disposal.” “Or doesn’t.” “Not because they didn’t care.” “Not to mention, on any human population risk.” “Which is exactly what we provide at CIGNA.”
Ten of the twenty-six “sentences” in the ad are such fragments. But I don’t mean to pick on CIGNA. Turning a couple of pages, I find that General Electric has placed an ad in which thirteen of twenty-five sentences are fragments.
Advertising copy may not be the best writing now being produced in the United States, but it almost certainly is the most expensive. A sentence like “And disposal” must survive the scrutiny of junior and senior copywriters, creative supervisors, account executives, and perhaps even a vice-president or two. The next time your eyes drift over the text of an advertisement, consider that the agency probably earned more for those few dozen words than Melville earned for writing Moby Dick .
The excesses of contemporary business writing bring me back to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who wrote not only my second-favorite business letter but also my favorite. In 1853, having worked since the age of twelve and having accumulated a fortune of eleven million dollars, the fifty-nine-year-old lion took the first vacation of his life: a grand tour of Europe in a steamship built especially for the voyage and “fitted up,” a contemporary newspaper reported, “with all that can tend to gratify the eye and minister to luxurious ease.” In Vanderbilt’s absence a pair of business associates, perhaps thinking that age had mellowed or success softened the commodore, took steps that challenged his interests, thus provoking a letter that read in its entirety:
You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.
Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt
Not a word wasted. If anyone can offer a better example of solid business writing, I would like to see it.