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Chapter XVII. Business Narration

§ 81. Because narration deals with the past, the tenses of it should ordinarily be kept in the perfect and pluperfect. It is human, however, to drop into the present in narrating events which come back vividly as one writes. Such a present is called the historical present. It is perfectly in place for short passages intended to be vivid or careful. The danger is that the writer will swing out of the past into the present, and then unconsciously swing back again. Notice the consistency with which all the verbs are kept present in the following:

My immediate task is to dig a ditch along the outer side of the rotting planks, so that they can be removed and replaced by new ones. I am soon alone on the job, for the farmers' work calls them elsewhere. The experience in the sewer-ditch at Middletown is all to my credit, and my spirits rise with the discovery that I can handle my pick and shovel more effectively, and with less sense of exhaustion. And then the stint is my own, and no boss stands guard over me as a dishonest workman. At least I am conscious of none, and I am working on merrily, when suddenly I become aware of my employer bending over the ditch and watching me intently.

It is a face very red with the heat and much bespattered with the mud into which my tools sink gurglingly, that I turn up to him.

"How are you getting on?"

"Pretty well, thank you."

"You mustn't work too hard. All that I ask of a man is to work steady. Have an apple?"

He is gone in a moment, and I stand in the ditch eating the apple with immense relish, and thinking what a good sort that farmer is, and how thoroughly he understands the principle of getting his best work out of a man! He has appealed to my sense of honor by intrusting the job to me, and now he has won me completely to his interests by showing concern in mine. - W. A. Wyckoff: The Workers.

In section forty-three attention was called to the bad grammar of "I says." The form "I say" is permissible in vivid narration like the following:

The whistle blows, and in three minutes there is a line of fifty men at the window. I, the time-keeper, am watching them. I say to Arthur, "Are you ready?", and the busy pay-master gives a nod which shakes off the ashes of his cigar. I open the window and Arthur begins to sort out the pay-envelopes.

§ 82. The next thing to be certain of is that the proportions of the narrative are right. The scale of the whole having been determined, unimportant events must be foreshortened or entirely omitted. Read again what was said on this matter in sections eleven and fourteen. This matter of proportion must be settled in advance, but it is well to check up the finished piece and see whether you have really fulfilled your good intentions.

Here is a plain little piece of business narrative which happily illustrates the omission of the irrelevant. Nothing is given which is not necessary to the progress of the story, and nothing essential is omitted.

After I had worked for Appleby & Bumbleby as stenographer for about a year, Mr. Bumbleby acquired the habit of sending me out to help on audits when he was short of assistants. As I developed an unexpected ability, my work in this direction gradually increased until another stenographer was employed and I became a permanent member of the auditing staff.

In this line of business I had a number of surprising experiences, one of which I will recount.

The firm undertook the audit of the books of the Hildreth Hardware Co., a rather small concern dealing in builders' supplies, the audit covering twelve months.

The contract was taken at $150 flat price, it being considered that there was not a great deal of work to do and that the work would be simple. For these reasons the job was turned over to me under the supervision of Mr. Bumbleby. He went over the ground, gave me the necessary instructions, and left me to my own resources.

When I arrived at the store I found that the "Company" was a partnership. Mr. Hildreth, the senior partner, managed the business. Mr. Forsyth, the junior partner, kept the books.

Mr. Hildreth called me into his office and explained to me the reason why he had decided to have the books audited. He had a thorough knowledge of the business, he said, and knew within a few dollars what profit the business ought to make. But it didn't make it. Further, for the last six months he had kept a special record of all sales made and the gross profit on each individual sale. At the end of the six months he deducted total expenses of every kind and found himself more than $1,500 short. He had O. K.'d the books kept by Mr. Forsyth every day and had discovered nothing to criticize. He had employed a private detective agency to shadow the salesmen and other employes, but without result Apparently, no stock had been surreptitiously removed. All shipping orders and bids he had O. K.'d himself and could find nothing wrong, so that he was in a blue funk.

He asked me if it were possible to ascertain what stock should be on hand, taking the last inventory as a basis, adding purchases and deducting sales. I told him that if he would have a list made of quantities received and sold, I would check them over, but that this work would have to be paid for extra. So I heard no more of that and went ahead with the regular work.

There were two cash books. One was a petty cash book, the expenditures recorded in which were paid for out of cash receipts which were also entered in the book. The totals of petty cash receipts and expenditures were entered each day in the general cash book, the receipts being credited to Merchandise Account and the expenditures debited to Expense Account Mr. Hildreth said I need not bother with the petty cash book, as he went over it himself every day.

I made the regular audit thoroughly and expeditiously, found a few trifling clerical errors, and reported to Mr. Bumbleby. The firm of Appleby & Bum-bleby reported to the Hildreth Hardware Co.


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