Writing for Business and
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
|In recognition of the
efforts of readers who send me clever or unusually well-written pieces of writing, on
this twenty-second day of January in the year 1998 I hereby create the Golden
conferred November 2003, on
Sixth award, conferred
May 2003, on
Fourth award, conferred
September 2000, on
Third award, conferred June
Second award, conferred
August 1998, on
First award, conferred
January 1998, on
The following letter was sent to me by Jonathan Bentley in response to a column urging my readers to take time to express their appreciation to the people who had done something nice for them. He described it as “a 48-year belated thank-you letter to some people who made a strong impression on me when I was 10 years old.”
Bentley explained that he didn't expect me to read his long letter, but if I did, he wanted me to forgive his use of the semicolon. “I love the damn things,” he wrote, “and I figure if I just keep using them, one day I might use them properly!”
Well, I'm a sucker for semicolons, so I did read his letter, and was I impressed.
Bentley’s letter tells in hilarious and poignant detail the story of a young boy’s adventures and misadventures during two summer visits to a ranch in Montana. His letter is more than well written and entertaining, and it is more than thoughtful. It does everything a good thank-you letter should do: It expresses the writer’s appreciation, recognizes the donor’s generosity, emphasizes the value of the gift, and explains in personal detail how the gift made a difference in his life.
hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
November 15, 2003
Mr. and Mrs. John and Nell Kubesh
Thank you for participating in the “Send a Boy to Montana” many years ago.
GLENDIVE, MONTANA (CIRCA 1955)
My name is Jon (Jonathan) Bentley. I’m 58 years old, live in Saint Paul, Minn., and I have fond remembrances of time spent on the Kubesh ranch somewhere between 1955-1957 when I was 10-12 years old.
I recently found a Christmas card in a box of old photos and letters given to me by my mother, Edith Bentley. It was from “Mr. and Mrs. John E. Kubesh and family,” postmarked December 22, 1959.
My mother is still in Saint Paul and turned 85 this year. She is doing well, living in a very nice seniors complex. She’s been parceling out boxes of her old files, letters and memorabilia to me for years. A number of years back, I came across a letter dealing with the “Send a boy to Montana” program. It was from the fraternal organization that sponsored the program. I meant to look you up then, but regretfully, never followed through.
In another, more recent journey through the memorabilia, I discovered the Christmas card. This time I vowed to follow through with a “thank you!” Too often we don’t get second chance.
Using one of the various Internet search engines, I entered “John Kubesh + Glendive + Montana” and within seconds, your address and telephone number appeared. It took me a week to gather the courage to make the call. I don’t like to intrude, feeling a letter would be more appropriate – and worried that I’d have the wrong family – or worse . . . that I’d missed the opportunity to say thank you.
I called and spoke with Nell, who told me that John was out on errands. I was quite pleased and relieved.
A month has passed since that telephone call and I’ve been thinking about what to say in this letter – other than a simple thank you.
I thought some recollections and some background on David and me would be appropriate:
My mother raised my brother David and I as a single parent and has always tried to do the best for us. We didn’t have a lot of money but she was always in search of things that we could participate in that were within our reach.
The “Send a Boy to Montana” program caught her eye. (My brother, David, was also a beneficiary of this program, having gone to your ranch a few years ahead of me.) Both of us have had the opportunity over the years, to make frequent and fond references to our experiences at your home.
Getting there: I remember gathering in downtown Minneapolis for the journey to Montana. I don’t remember whether it was by train or bus, although I suspect it was by bus. I remember being picked up in Glendive and being driven out to the ranch, which seemed like it may have been 15 or 20 miles to the west.
I remember the house being to the right, barn to the left. Up the driveway on the right, there were several small tractors and a utility trailer. Nearby, there was a large 4-wheel drive tractor. Large and impressive. And there was also a single-engine plane, which was even more impressive.
I don’t remember where I slept in the house, the mealtimes, the number of people, or many details, but I do remember being given a horse to ride. On several occasions I’d go for a long ride, following fence lines and taking in the rolling hills, gentle breezes, sounds of nature – absorbing the beauty of it all.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in the wooded lands of northern Minnesota, so I was not a stranger to the sounds of quiet nature, but this was different, so open, so expansive, so new . . . a view to a world I didn’t know existed.
We didn’t have a television prior to my Montana visit, and kids don’t read newspapers, so my world was small, although I didn’t know how small. If I wasn’t outside exploring in the woods or neighborhoods, I listened to the radio, old standards from the 50s: Johnny Ray, Theresa Brewer, Ella and Sarah, Frank. No hard news. Up north, my cousin would have the radio tuned to country stations: Hank Snow, Ernest Tubbs, Hank Williams, and many more I can’t recall.
We received little news of the larger world. Nor did we get subscriptions to magazines. One of my aunts, however, was married to an over-the-road trucker, so we’d get an occasional “Arizona Highways” magazine. I remember being fascinated with the desert landscape – the photos of petrified forests, painted deserts, cactus, chamisa and roadrunners. Looking back, I’ve always had a curiosity of places beyond my immediate view. I’ve always believed that my trip to Montana and the freedom I had there, strongly influenced the curiosity I’ve been blessed with throughout my life.
Trailers: I’m able to back up with a trailer with remarkable agility. While at your ranch, I’d get on the little tractor with the wide-front tires, floor stick shift and hand-throttle, hook up the utility trailer – and practice backing up. Over and over, over and over. I loved that little tractor. It seems like a small thing, but I’m reminded of it often when doing something as simple as backing up a trailer.
Antelope: There were a couple of hired hands around and while I didn’t spend much time with them during their workday, they were always friendly, always keeping an eye on “the big house” and being careful to stay busy. Once, on one of their days off, they invited me on one of their “antelope runs” (I’d never seen an antelope before). We were somewhere in the area but could’ve easily been 50 miles away. The countryside seemed hillier.
When we saw the first antelope, it was running at full gait, and to my amazement as it approached the fence-line, it didn’t jump over; rather, it flattened out its legs and went through the fence!! I remember that with continued amazement even to this day. Whitetail deer from my neighborhood jump over fences!
From there, more fun. We were in their pickup, I was riding middle seat and when the two men would spot an antelope, they’d mount a chase until the antelope literally ran out of energy; I suspect they were usually the younger and less experienced of the species. The man riding “shotgun” would be on the running board of the pickup and leap on the animal, grounding him until his partner could tie it up. I think they sold them to petting zoos.
In one pursuit, we were following an antelope up a steep hillside, when – at the top, the antelope disappeared! The driver slammed on the brakes and stopped inches short of a steep cliff. Laughs all around, except me perhaps, who took a deep breath and kept looking over the cliffs’ edge – watching the antelope bounding away in the distance.
The horse: I don’t remember if I had the same horse during the whole visit, but the one I do remember was a memorable creature. It wasn’t a large animal and might be described as a “paint.” One of his more consistent behaviors was to simply take off at full speed, seemingly just for the hell of it. Fortunately, being 10 or 11 years old, I had the coordination and stamina to ride these experiences out.
I remember the first time. We were just over the rise leading to the house when he kicked it into a full-speed gallop to the house. While the distance may have been only a half-mile or so, it seemed like an eternity until we approached the driveway. I had no clue whether he’d turn toward the barn or house. He turned into the driveway and stopped abruptly just short of the house, although not abruptly enough to throw me off. I stayed on him for a while, catching my breath and being thankful that I was still alive!
In another experience, I was in the small valley, or arroyo area, near the ranch. We were enjoying a leisurely walk down this pleasant valley when, again he kicked it into full gallop. I tried everything to get him to stop, turn, or do something! Like stopping, for instance. It was to no avail. He just went faster and faster until we were at full speed. Perhaps it was because there was nothing else to do except hang on, I looked out ahead and noticed a creek bed about a quarter of a mile ahead. Again, again and again, I tried to get that stubborn (or just plain stupid?) animal to rein-in! No luck.
We were going too fast for me to bail out – and as the creek-bed approached, I decided to give him a major kick in the ribs, hoping that he’d jump the creek.
He never broke his stride. No change-up, no stop, no jump. Nothing! The creek was probably about 15'-20' across. He just kept running as if there were ground under foot.
We slammed into the opposite sidewall, the horse taking the full stop blow to the chest and neck. Me: I slid right up his neck, over his head and skidded along the hardscrabble for about 10' to 15'.
I was scared to death, thinking that I may have killed the animal, but I was fine, due to the malleability of young bones and a healthy dose of stupidity. The horse was fine too, perhaps for the same reasons. We weren’t too far from the barn and I remember walking the horse back to the barn and handing him over to the hired hands.
I don’t think I rode again after this last experience – and I don’t recall telling anyone about it, feeling it was my fault; that I could’ve killed the animal. It still stands as a guilty pleasure; one of those experiences you’re glad you had (and survived) . . . and made more exhilarating by the fact that you can tell the tale so many years later.
I often hoped that the gene pool for that horse ended; that he never procreated before going to the Great Corral in the sky.
I’ve no idea whether it was the same animal – but my brother David, who’d also benefited from your hospitality some years earlier – had a similar experience. He was also coming over the same rise toward the ranch when his horse kicked it into full-speed toward home.
At the driveway, instead of turning right toward the house, he went left and ran full-speed into the fence that was to the right of the barn, and topped with barbed wire. The full-speed to full-stop tossed David through the barbed wire, landing him scratched, bruised and humbled on the other side of the fence – and otherwise no worse for the wear.
At the end of my stay, there was a roundup and branding. I don’t recall being of much help, but the activity was fascinating and bustling. I remember staying out of the way but near enough to “feel” the excitement, importance, and significance of the work-at-hand. It was real.
Today, having seen mechanized dairy farms, large-scale beef ranching, and factory-style pig farms, the Kubesh experience seems like part of another world . . . gone . . . like so many other things from a simpler time.
My visit to your ranch was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It was an opportunity not heralded to the heavens by media-hype: rather, a quiet expression of sharing and commitment to those less fortunate – and greatly appreciated by those of us who benefited, especially David and me.
David and I have shared these stories with friends and relatives countless times over the years. These have been cherished memories for two boys who’d never imagined this kind of world existed, yet had the opportunity to “live” it.
I’m now 58 years old, married for 38 years with three wonderful adult children and one very precious grandson. I graduated high school and college in Saint Paul and entered the hospitality business as a senior in college in 1968.
I’ve had a very robust career in the hospitality business: hotels from 1968 through 1990; casino resorts since 1990 – and am now a management consultant in the gaming arena, specializing in tribal casinos.
David and I are enrolled tribal members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe Indians of Minnesota. I spent age 2-6 on the reservation, living with my grandparents. While I was schooled in the metropolitan area, I returned to my grandparents’ home every summer and most holidays through high school. I understand Indian culture, the timing, the sensitivity – and the hospitality business.
It’s been a good life and an exciting one. I bring the high-tech experience of a trained professional and the heart and soul of a tribal member to my work. I continually try and merge the demands of one with the desires of the other. It’s an interesting and rewarding career.
My brother, who is deaf, has chosen a life less corporate and mainstream. He has lived in Aspen, CO, since 1961 and graduated college from the University of Colorado at Boulder, CO. He lives a simple life, enriched by an astonishingly diverse circle of friends and possesses an insatiable curiosity of all things intellectual – literature, geology, culture and history. He is extremely intelligent and dynamic. He is 62 years old and doing well. We are very close.
While this letter has been a bit longer than I imagined when starting, I hope it conveys the appreciation and respect I have for what you did so many years ago. I don’t know how long you hosted the “Send a boy to Montana” program – but I want you to know that there are two of your guests who will remember your generosity and kindness forever.
Again, thank you! From the bottom of my heart,
Jonathan E. Bentley
Saint Paul, Minnesota
To appreciate what Ms. Genter had in mind when she wrote to me, you should read the column she was responding to. Here it is:
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: April 25, 2003
Avoid catastrophe with an apostrophe
by Stephen Wilbers
It has been nearly 10 years since I first wrote about a disturbing trend sweeping America: rampant apostrophomission.
Since then – despite the dedicated efforts of English majors everywhere – the problem has worsened. Anywhere you look you see phrases such as yesterdays report, my clients request, and four customers accounts.
Perhaps under the growing influence of e-mail communication, where pausing to type a punctuation mark might seem like a waste of precious time, writers of all ages are omitting the apostrophe (’), that handy little mark invented some 600,000 years ago by early primates to indicate omission and possession.
For an explanation of the problem, I called the National Center for Punctuation Control in Barnes, Wisconsin, where Don Shelter, chief of apostrophobic outbreaks, told me about a surprising development.
“Over the past few decades we’ve noticed a steady increase in the number of apostrophobes, or writers possessed of an irrational fear of apostrophes,” Shelter said. “But only recently have we noted a parallel increase in the number of apostophiliacs, or writers possessed of an uncontrollable love of apostrophes.”
Writers suffering from the latter ailment, Shelter explained, are likely to use apostrophes without restraint or reason, as in Harley’s for sale, we bought three hammer’s, and other plural constructions.
When asked to comment on a possible relationship between the contrary trends, Shelter speculated that they might be nature’s way of maintaining punctuational balance, but that further research would be needed before a definite link could be determined.
Meanwhile, Shelter recommended the following common-sense practices for writers concerned with protecting their credibility and reputations.
■To indicate the omission of letters in contractions, as in she didn’t and they don’t.
■To indicate the omission of numbers in dates, as in class of ’97. Note: Be careful not to use a single open quotation mark (‘97) in place of an apostrophe, as in (’97).
■To indicate possession by singular nouns – add an apostrophe and an s.
■To indicate possession by plural nouns ending in s – add only an apostrophe, as in three employees’ paychecks and two bosses’ recommendations.
■To indicate joint possession – make only the last word in the series possessive, as in Sally and John’s report.
■To indicate individual possession – make each word in the series possessive, as in Sally’s and John’s reports.
■To make compound nouns possessive – add ’s or s’ to the last element, as in my mother-in-law’s cooking, not my mother’s-in-law cooking.
Do not use apostrophes
■To form the plural of letters and numbers, such as two Ph.D.s and the 1980s, except when needed for clarity, as in Be sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s and Mind your p’s and q’s.
■To create the plural form of nouns – should be two mistakes, not two mistake’s.
■To create possessive pronouns – should be its, hers, theirs, and whose, not it’s, her’s, their’s and who’s.
■To create descriptive phrases, as in sale’s record and news’ release – should be sales record and news release. Note, however, that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a descriptive phrase from a possessive phrase, as in teachers manual and driver’s license.
Shelter urged writers needing additional assistance to read my column or to seek the counsel of a licensed apostrohpsychologist.
Now here’s the column in which I announce that Ms. Genter is being awarded a prestigious Golden Pen Award. I hope you enjoy her wit as much as I did.
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: May 9, 2003
Apostromania possesses readers
by Stephen Wilbers
A slew of you responded to my column about the misuse of the apostrophe. It’s gratifying to know that you take these matters seriously.
One of the more interesting messages – and certainly the most entertaining – came from Lynn Genter:
“No matter what you write about apostrophobia, I have even more concern over the increase of apostrophiliacs.
“Perhaps it is due to some very obvious and rampant misuse of apostrophes in our church. Our church bulletin and newsletter are rife with misplaced and unnecessary apostrophes. . . .
“An English teacher friend of mine, on maternity leave, even volunteered to proofread these two documents for the office staff. They, of course, saw no need for this free service and were, indeed, offended by the offer. I myself have been known to sneak whiteout into the narthex to blot out offending apostrophes on signs.”
There are certain things in life that get me going. The image of a dedicated church lady sneaking around with her bottle of correction fluid and setting the world aright is one of them.
Genter went on to say she was “extremely excited” to read about the National Center for Punctuation Control in Wisconsin:
“I had no idea of its existence, nor the existence of any such business anywhere in the country.
“I am contemplating retirement in the next few years, and I am tantalized by the second-career potential of such vital work. Please send me the address or e-mail address for this center so that I may contact them about possible future employment.”
Now Genter really had me going.
I often write about the five elements of style – economy of language; precise, colorful word choice; specific, vivid detail; pleasing rhythm from variety in sentence structure; and discernible tone or unique point of view.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Genter had nailed the fifth one.
I wrote back explaining that the Center for Punctuation Control was located in the thriving metropolis of Barnes, Wisconsin/Wisc., one of the few places in the country with a downtown consisting of a single building.
Unfortunately, I explained, I had misplaced the center’s address, but I had left a message with some staff members who live in Lake Wobegon, and I expected to hear from them soon.
Undeterred, Genter responded:
“I so appreciate . . . your efforts to locate the Center for Punctuation Control. Your sources in Lake Wobegon are certain to reply in a timely fashion, and I anxiously await the address.
“In thinking further about the serious conditions about which we have been corresponding, apostrophobia and apostrophilia, I was thinking it might be wise to form an Apostrophe Posse.
“You are in an ideal position to initiate such a group, and I wish you would give this concept some thought. The world could use a more concentrated effort to eradicate these dreaded maladies.”
For her splendid wit, her melodious language, and her dedication to the preservation of precise communication and the correct use of the English language, I hereby award Lynn Genter a coveted Golden Pen Award.
Genter is only the sixth person to receive this honor since its inception in January 1998.
If you would like a little more, here’s a delightful postscript Ms. Genter sent to me after we first corresponded and before she knew she was getting the award:
Dear Stephen Wilbers,
I forgot to tell you about an experience this weekend when I was in a restaurant where they promote their daily specials with a florescent grease pen.
While the hostess was looking for a table for us, I just HAD to try to get the preposterous apostrophe imposter out of “TODAY’S SPECIAL’S.” A little scrape of the fingernail should do, right? Wouldn’t you know that she came back too quickly and caught me in the act? She didn’t say anything, but I did feel a bit guilty. I hope I won’t be reading your article from a jail cell!
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: February 1, 2002
Getting to the heart of delicate situations
by Stephen Wilbers
There’s nothing like being honest and reassuring in a delicate situation. That’s the approach taken by Dr. Mark Urban in a letter distributed to new patients of Orthopedic Surgeons in Edina, Minn.
Urban opens his letter by thanking his patients for scheduling an appointment and then stating, “Our practice is committed to providing you with nothing short of the finest orthopedic care in the Twin Cities. However, I felt it wise that you knew a little bit more about me first.”
Next he summarizes his background, beginning on a personal note – “I am the third of six boys in my family, having grown up in Elm Grove, Wisconsin. My grandfather and father were both physicians, and four of my five brothers are also M.D.s” – then referring to his medical training at three different universities.
Then Urban reveals his reason for writing: “In December 1995, I became quite ill and was hospitalized with pneumonia. What I found out shortly thereafter was that I had been infected with HIV and was diagnosed with AIDS.” He explains that he believes he contracted the disease during his orthopedic training in Philadelphia in the late 1980s.
“Immediately upon discovering this news,” he writes, “I temporarily suspended my practice and offered free HIV testing to the more than 1,400 surgical patients of mine from 1992 to 1995. None tested positive.”
In April 1996, with “the strong support of my friends, my wife and two sons, my physician partners, and hundreds of patients,” he returned to an office-based practice, his health restored by “powerful new medications, including the highly successful triple-drug ‘cocktail.’”
Since July 1996, he has had no detectable HIV in his bloodstream. “Although I can’t prove that I’ve been cured, I can tell you that my disease has been in a clinical state of remission for a very long time.”
In November 1998, “in accordance with guidelines established by the Minnesota Department of Health” and under an agreement “drafted by the Department’s expert panel” and “approved by my surgeon partners and the credentialing committees at both Methodist and Fairview Southdale Hospitals,” Urban returned to a “safe, limited surgical practice.”
At this point Urban addresses the reader directly:
“If after our meeting we determine that you need to have surgery and you’re not comfortable with me being your surgeon, I’ll be more than happy to have one of my partners do the procedure. I certainly would take no offense.”
He closes by inviting the reader to contact him personally “or any of the other physicians at Orthopedic Surgeons, Ltd.” with questions.
That’s some letter. Here’s what I liked.
#Opens by giving the reader a sense of his humanity, characterizing himself as a member of a family dedicated to practicing medicine.
#Makes effective use of a standard stylistic technique – after a long sentence (the one in which he refers to his 1,400 surgical patients), he offers a short, emphatic one: “None tested positive.”
#Establishes credibility, both in summarizing his medical training and in describing the strict procedure he followed in returning to surgical practice.
#Seems sincere in offering alternatives to patients who feel uncomfortable with having him as their surgeon.
I admire this writer, not only for his courage and determination in pursuing a chosen career (“which I still love”), but also for his adeptness in addressing a delicate situation. Well done.
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: September 29, 2000
Smart writers know value of working with editors
by Stephen Wilbers
Every writer needs an editor. But only a smart writer knows to ask for one.
While working with a group of teachers and school administrators in Phoenix a couple of years ago, I met a smart writer: Carol Peck, Superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District.
A few weeks ago I received an e-mail message from her about a letter she had written to the Arizona Diamondbacks thanking them for their contributions to children in the Phoenix area. She asked if I would be willing to look over her letter before she submitted it as an editorial to the Arizona Republic.
I was impressed both by her letter and by her request for editorial assistance.
First, I thought her letter represented a win-win-win-win situation. It created goodwill by graciously acknowledging the contributions of a supporter. It made the district look good by demonstrating the competence of a superintendent who was a capable writer. It made the Diamondbacks look good by publicly detailing their contributions. And it encouraged future giving by setting an example of public acknowledgment. Smart.
Second, I was impressed by Ms. Peck’s desire to get a second opinion on what was already good copy. In requesting editorial assistance, she demonstrated a quality characteristic of effective managers: She knew how to use a resource to accomplish her goal.
Here is her letter, with some of my suggested edits marked in square brackets:
“I want to publicly thank the Arizona Diamondbacks for their tremendous outreach programs for Arizona children. They have targeted places of need where inspiration and role models make a significant difference in the lives of children.
“In the Alhambra Elementary School District, the Diamondbacks built a professionally designed baseball field [add a comma] complete with an electronic scoreboard. The Matt Williams Field is used daily by students as well as the community’s Little League program. Each year thousands of students will benefit from the new ball field, as it [end your sentence after ball field, delete as it, and start a new sentence beginning with It] is the only one in the Westwood/Simpson neighborhood, one of the most densely populated areas in Phoenix.
“Alhambra District was also selected [give credit here to the Diamondbacks by making them the subject of the sentence; change the passive construction Alhambra District was also selected to the active The Diamondbacks also selected the district] to participate in Tony Womack’s Cover to Cover reading program, which has a tremendous impact on our children. In order [delete In order] to win the opportunity to attend a ball game, students must do an incredible amount of reading at home with their parents. The Diamondbacks provide transportation, photographs, T-shirts, and recognition on the ball field.
“For most of these children [revise to For many of these children], it may be their only opportunity to attend a Diamondbacks game and visit Bank One Ballpark. Our students will treasure these wonderful [delete wonderful] memories for the rest of their lives!
“The district appreciates all that the Diamondbacks organization and its players give to our community and the significant impact it has on our children. We thank the Diamondbacks for their special focus on [revise special focus on to their commitment to] children and for making dreams come true!”
Ms. Peck took one more step before submitting her letter for publication: She sent her revised copy to the Diamondbacks to make certain that nothing in her letter would offend or misrepresent the benefactor she wanted to acknowledge. Smart again.
In recognition of Ms. Peck’s skill with language and her understanding that writing is a process, I hereby confer on her a prestigious Golden Pen Award. Writing samples by the three previous recipients are posted below.
E-mail from Robert Rhodes
I read with interest your recent column on graduation gifts, in which you suggested some very fine reference books for college-bound students. As a former journalist, I have long valued the Merriam-Webster, as well as Strunk and White. However, may I recommend to you a discovery I recently made that has entirely changed my view of what a single-volume dictionary can be?
The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998) is a nearly monolithic single-volume tome with not only a monumental lexicon but a broad spectrum of beautifully wrought full-color photos and illustrations on virtually every page. These illustrations range from the usual anatomic and biological views to (my favorite) a highly detailed cutaway of an oil-drilling platform. Astonishing and grand! One may also view a samurai uniform, a selection of hoes (digging, combination, scuffle, onion, triangular, draw), as well as a very smart chocolate-brown Homburg hat. There is a table with an array of mushrooms, a full-page selection of woodwind instruments from an oboe to a flageolet, and the piece de resistance, a cutaway rendering of the Keck telescopes at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. There is even a Mongolian yurt. . . .
If you haven’t seen this wonderful (and affordable) dictionary, check one out sometime. It takes the illustrated dictionary to a whole new plane, and without losing the proper Oxonian precision that one has come to expect.
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: August 28, 1998
Poor wording in a law lets scofflaws off the hook
by Stephen Wilbers
David Vieau, President of the Minneapolis-based Peer Environmental & Engineering Resources, doesn’t like ambiguity, especially when it hinders the enforcement of regulations intended to protect the environment.
In reference to Minnesota Statute 115.061, commonly known as the “reporting law,” Vieau writes:
“The Statute . . . seems to say that anyone who discovers a release of hazardous substances must immediately notify the Pollution Control Agency of the release. However, many environmental professionals interpret the law more selectively, whereby only the person in control of the hazardous substance that has been released has a duty to notify the agency.”
Vieau explains that the interpretation of the statute-- whether “every person” includes anyone who knows about the release or only the person in control of the substance or material--has significant ramifications for “regulatory enforcement actions and cleanup liability” because “environmental consultants are regularly hired to perform environmental assessments of property.”
In other words, both consultants and owners are likely to know about a release, so the question of who is required to report releases of hazardous materials is significant.
Here is the relevant text from the statute:
“115.061 Duty to notify and avoid water pollution. . . . it is the duty of every person to notify the agency immediately of the discharge, accidental or otherwise, of any substance or material under its control which, if not recovered, may cause pollution of waters of the state.” (Italics added.)
As you can see, the sentence is poorly written and ambiguous. The lack of agreement between every person and its leaves its without a clear antecedent. Logic suggests that its refers to every person, but grammar suggests that its refers not to a person but to the agency (the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency).
As Vieau explains, “If one interprets its to refer to every person, then only the person in control of the material must report a release. If a consultant is hired to inspect a property and discovers a release, the consultant would have no responsibility to report the release to the agency because [the consultant does] not control the hazardous material or the property.
“Sure, the consultant would be obligated to disclose the findings to the property owner and recommend the owner report the release to the agency. But if the owner chose to not report, the consultant would not be obligated to override that decision. . . .”
“On the other hand, if one interprets . . . material under its control . . . to mean materials under the agency’s control (by virtue of regulatory authority over hazardous materials), then every person becomes anyone discovering the release. If the owner won’t report, the consultant had better, or [the consultant would] be breaking the law.”
Here’s how I see it. The intent of the statute is clear: Its is intended to refer to every person, and every person is intended to refer to anyone who knows about a release, whether that be the person who handles the material, the person who investigates the release, or the person (meaning the owner, the business, or the organization) who is responsible for the material.
But the problem--a disturbing one--remains: Because the statute is ambiguously written, unscrupulous consultants and owners apparently are taking advantage of a perceived loophole to circumvent the intent of the law. Perhaps the State Legislature should consider correcting its error.
Meanwhile, in recognition of David Vieau’s commitment to clear and precise communication and in appreciation for his articulate description of the problem relating to Minnesota Statute 115.061, I hereby confer on him a Golden Pen Award, an award I established last January to recognize readers who send me unusually well-written or clever letters. Vieau will join the award’s first recipient, Norman Isaacson, in a position of honor on my Web page.
E-mail from Norman Isaacson
Having received a list of “Generation ‘X’ Office Lingo,” I took a stab at using each term as quickly as I could. Here’s the effort:
As a recovering stress puppy and current mouse potato, I was ego surfing and trying to squirt the bird when the whole system did a perot. Well, that caused a huge blamestorm right from the ohnosecond on. When it got a little noisy, everyone in the whole cube farm began prairie dogging, especially the starter marriage crowd. Then, right in the middle of all this, a SITCOM body nazi with a bad case of keyboard plaque tossed me some treeware he had put together on a xerox subsidy and called me a 404. Of course, I had to tell him he was just a wannabe idea hamster and nothing but a tourist. Now, being well past our elvis years, we’re both uninstalled and feeling kind of swiped out.
Here’s the list:
Stress puppy: A person who seems to thrive on being stressed out and whiny.
Mouse potato: The on-line, wired generation’s answer to the couch potato.
Ego surf: Scanning the Net, databases, and print media, looking for references to one’s own name.
Squirt the bird: Transmitting a signal to a satellite.
Perot: Quitting unexpectedly.
Blamestorm: Sitting around in a group discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and who is responsible.
Ohnosecond: The minuscule fraction of time in which you realize that you’ve just made a big mistake.
Cube farm: An office filled with cubicles.
Prairie dogging: When someone yells or drops something loudly in a cube farm, and people’s heads pop up over the walls to see what’s going on.
Starter marriage: A short-lived first marriage that ends in divorce with no kids, no property, and no regrets.
SITCOMs: What yuppies turn into when they have children and one of them stops working to stay home with the kids. (Stands for Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage.)
Body nazis: Hard-core exercise and weight-lifting fanatics who look down on anyone who doesn’t work out obsessively.
Keyboard plaque: The disgusting buildup of dirt and crud found on computer keyboards.
Treeware: Hacker slang for documentation or other printed material.
Xerox subsidy: Euphemism for making unauthorized photocopies from one’s workplace.
404: Someone who’s clueless. (From the World Wide Web error message “404 Not Found,’’ meaning the requested document couldn’t be located.)
Idea hamsters: People who always seem to have their idea generators running.
Tourists: People who take training classes just to get a vacation from their jobs.
Elvis year: The peak year of something’s or someone’s popularity. (“Barney the Dinosaur’s elvis year was 1994.’’)
Uninstalled: Euphemism for being fired.
Swiped out: An ATM or credit card that has been rendered useless because the magnetic strip is worn away from extensive use.