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Chapter XVIII. Business Description

$ 86. Considering the situations in which business description is needed, we may distinguish four types: description by general appearance; description by enumeration; description by function; description by suggestion. All of these types may be demanded in a given situation, and all may be combined in an article of no great length.

At a distance no object looks as it looks near by. At a distance you get a general effect. And in general, every description should begin with the look of the object as seen at a distance, or else with the purpose which the object is intended to serve. You personally may know for sure that the moon is a mass of ribbed and fissured rock; but it does not look so. It looks, as Dante said, like an eternal pearl. Sometimes it looks like a silver sickle. Sometimes it looks like a great round ruby against a grey dress. It is the first business of description to tell how a thing looks, not how it is put together or internally organized.

A few sentences of business English will show what is meant by general appearance:

1. This boat has the appearance of boats costing twice as much.

2. A dignified square-side oil lamp of the carriage type.

3. This is a highly refined motor car.

4. Looks like silk - wears better.

5. Built like a watch.

6. Ivory Soap - it floats.

7. Snow-flake book paper.

8. We have for sale a modest country villa. You can barely see it in the surrounding trees. You get glimpses of a comfortable, low, long house. It is larger than it looks. It has touches of individual taste here and there.

9. This piece of land is shaped like a triangle. The north angle of it is filled by a grove of white oaks.

10. As you enter the dining room you get a general effect of warmth and neatness. The walls are wainscoated in Flemish oak, and the space above is finished in Venetian red.

11. A lady carrying this lunch-box seems to be carrying a kodak.

12. Walker's Grape Juice is clear, because it's pure.

13. Invisible hair nets.

14. The smallest and lightest of all cameras.

15. You don't want a boat that looks like a tub.

16. At a distance the machine lodes like a steam shovel, but at the end of the crane is a large piece of soft steel, circular in shape, three or four feet thick. This piece of steel, which when charged with electricity is the magnet, resembles a large grindstone.

In the fourteenth example, lightest appeals to another sense than that of sight. Description may appeal to any of the senses, and the laws of general effect are the same as in the case of sight, though more limited.

1. Our silent screen door is what you want

2. Soft and fluffy Crown jewel cotton batting. [Only here the idea of crown jewels doesn't make for fluffiness or softness.]

3. It smells like violets.

4. Blue Label Ketchup: delicious, appetizing, satisfying. [Note that the general words are not very effective; the vocabulary of taste is limited, and the best that can be done is to describe one taste in terms of another.]

5. Sanitas, the washable wall covering.

6. Thick, creamy chocolate coverings containing tempting fillings of jelly, nougat, caramel, nut, and other delightful flavors.

We are speaking of descriptive phrases that are general. But not for a minute must we understand that being general means being colorless or vague. What are known as "general words" have this fault, and it is a fault which the business writer should beware of. Let me illustrate. Here is a particularly good description:

If you want a clean, crackly, strong, fine paper in your business letterheads and envelopes - if you want impressive business stationery at a price that makes it usable in quantities - show this advertisement to your printer or lithographer and insist upon having Construction Bond.

Now in this description we might call impressive a rather general word. It is not only general, but as applied to paper it is rather highflown. But note those words clean, crackly, strong, fine. Those aren't general; they are specific. They appeal vividly to the eye, the ear, and the strong hands of the business man. They make him see the paper and imagine it resisting his fingers. The advertiser of this bond paper elsewhere says of it something to this effect:

If the Declaration had been written on Construction Bond, the paper would now remain as crisp as it was under the quills of Jefferson and Hancock.

That is good business description. A less able writer would have said:

If the Declaration had been written on Construction Bond, the paper would now remain in as good condition as it was under the pens of the signers.

See the difference?

§87. Without a preceding general effect, description by enumeration of details is difficult to read. Contrast the sixteenth example under section eighty-six with this:

The jaws are of forged and tempered steel, the handle is hard maple, with lignumvitae cap; it is hollow and the tools are placed inside. The blade bent at right angle fits the long groove in the jaws, and is used for cutting washers; while the awl shown in the cut is placed in the short groove for a center spur. The jaws are 1 1/4 inches, open 1 1/8 inches. The handle can be unscrewed and the bit shank put in its place, to be used with a bit brace for any kind of boring, drilling, or cutting washers. The handle can also be screwed in at right angles with its usual position, which is desirable for many kinds of work.

A machinist could figure out that this describes a hand-vise. The catalogue from which it is taken precedes it with a cut. Cuts are coming more and more to displace general description. The general look of the vise described above is short and heavy. The handle is fat. On the end of it the vise looks to a layman like a pair of short, heavy nippers with a big thumb-screw on the side.

Here is a more general description, but sufficiently detailed for the buyers to whom it is addressed. The sentences could be better built, but they convey the information.


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