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Chapter I. Definition Of Business English

§ 1. Business means buying and selling, and English is the name of our mother tongue. Business English is obviously such English as is used in mercantile transactions. Our definition is quickly made.

But it will bear expansion. We must answer certain questions that inevitably arise. Is some special brand of English used in business? And how are we to know when we are studying business and when merely the English of business?

Take the first of these two questions. There are of course certain words which name business transactions primarily. Buy, sell, exchange, barter, trade, purchase, shop, customer, hire, rent, pay, fee, price, retail, wholesale, lease, mortgage, merchandise, commodity, goods, stock, office, factory, finance, money, funds, capital, interest, sum, amount, balance, cash, currency, bill, receipt, note, draft, check, bank, cashier, bookkeeper, stenographer, clerk - hundreds of words like these will occur to us at random as being mercantile words in a peculiar sense.

To be sure, they are not all limited to business transactions. Note the word brand. It is primarily mercantile, naming a particular kind of goods. But in the second paragraph, above, the phrase "special brand of English" appears. Here the word is used figuratively. Every business word can be extended in that way to social or literary use. When we speak of wholesale slaughter, or of a stock of words, we use commercial figures of speech, and Americans are exceedingly fond of doing so. You have heard people speak of a thoroughly posted man, as if a man were a ledger. You have heard them speak of the balance of the day, as if time were literally money. You have noticed that an American likes to claim everything in sight; I mean, he prefers to claim that a thing is so, rather than assert, declare, contend, allege, maintain, or swear that it is so.

§2.But the strictly commercial words, again, aria not the only ones employed in business. In addition to such words as are listed above in our third paragraph, business employs thousands of terms from science and technology. If a man is buying or selling machinery, he must know the names of the machines. If it falls to him to buy the parts of them, he must know the names of the parts. Does business English, then, include the study of everything that is bought or sold? If it did, it would include nearly the whole dictionary. Everything is bought or sold, from surgical instruments to Egyptian mummies. Nothing is exempt but heaven and love and faith. "Tis only heaven that is given away; Mis only God may be had for the asking." And there are gloomy times when we feel that even faith and love are sold.

Quite clearly we are not called upon to master the whole dictionary. No man's life is long enough for that. So far as special study of words is concerned, we must limit it to a few which are most commonly employed in mercantile transactions.

And I fear that even with these we shall not be quite certain what to do. In our eleventh chapter will be found brief histories of certain commercial terms. But it is not pretended that knowing the history of a word will usually be of much practical value to the young man in business. The word dollar has a curious history, being connected with our word dale, a valley. A dollar is a dale-coin, a piece of money first coined in a certain dale, or Thal. But who cares, except the philologist or the antiquary? "Show me how to get the dollar," says our business man, "and you bookworms may have the derivation." He feels that he is quite literary enough if he manages to spell dollar with two ll's. It bores him to go farther into derivations. And it would be bad business to urge him to go back far into history when he is interested only in the burning present and the glowing future.

§3. If we pick up any business letter we see at once that the words it contains are chiefly common words, not especially mercantile. The technical buying or selling words are present, but they are in the minority. What makes the letter good or bad is the choice and arrangement of words to express thought and feeling. It is their composition, or putting together. And this is really the subject that we are after. "Business English" in the sense here used is merely short for "Business English Composition. "

"English," as used in schools and colleges, now means primarily English composition. It includes also the study of English literature, but chiefly because a mastery of literature helps the student to a mastery of writing and speaking. None of us common people ever invents a word, and the few Edisons are lucky if they add half a dozen to the language. We go to other people or to books for our words. They are the great social heritage into which we enter, and literature is the best place to find them, because there they are alive, each in its context. The proper study of literature is so practical that I dare not confess how practical - because some people think it is a matter of pleasure pure and simple. The words of literature are practical; the setting of them is practical; the knowledge of life that they give us is practical. The right sort of business man cannot read Shakspere without getting a clearer insight into those springs of human emotion which he has to consider daily. And if this reading makes him better in point of courage and good cheer and character, why, that is practical too.

But this is not a plea for the study of Shakspere. For all the illustrative matter used in this book we shall go to business documents pure and simple. We shall have business narratives, business descriptions, business arguments, business explanations. We are to try to get at the principles of English composition on business topics:

Our purpose is to point out some of the established principles which govern effective expression. Everybody is ready to admit that the power of effective expression is a financial asset. It helps the stenographer, the salesman, the manager, the advertiser, the correspondent. It makes for more responsible positions and advanced salaries. Good selling-talk sells goods. Judicious explanations remove difficulties. Persuasive arguments reach buyers.


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