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August 3rd, 2005

Awful “prepackaged” sentences

by Barbara Wallraff

Recently I invited you to help me assemble a rogues’ gallery of “awful prepackaged sentences” -- ones that come up in everyday life and set our teeth on edge, or worse. I expected to receive mainly examples of corporate-speak; I’ll come back to these. I was surprised to also get complaints about things individuals say to each other.

“No problem,” “Do you have a problem with that?” and similar “problem” sentences were popular targets. And Betty Detter, of Madison, Wis., wrote: “The one I hate is ‘I am doing this (meting out a punishment) for your own good.’” As it happens, the syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman discussed this phrase in the past year -- so why don’t I let her describe what’s wrong with it? Goodman wrote: “There are few phrases in the book of parenting that raise more suspicions among the young than the pronouncement that ‘I am doing this for your own good.’ It comes in a close second only to the declaration, ‘This is going to hurt me more than it will you.’”

As for corporate-speak, the “awful,” “awkwardly worded” sentence the largest number of readers sent me is “Your call will be answered in the order in which it has been received.” Kenneth G. Maluchnik, of Lincoln Park, Mich., commented that other companies “just tell me to hold for the next available assistant” and that this “sounds to me like the same thing.” Good point. Corporate communications departments -- are you listening? We like it when you talk to us the way you would talk to someone you know.

Maluchnik was on a roll. He also wrote: “Crest toothpaste famously bragged, ‘Crest has been shown to be an effective decay-preventive dentifrice that can be of significant value when used as directed in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care.’ Whew! They could have just said, ‘Crest helps fight tooth decay with regular use and routine dentist visits.’”

I thought I’d ask somebody official why this wording, which Crest still uses on some of its packaging, is so over-the-top. It’s accompanied by the seal of approval of the American Dental Association, which, I quickly discovered, is to blame for the verbiage. Versions of the sentence are the highest praise for commercial products like toothpaste and mouthwash that the American Dental Association allows to be associated with its name. An e-mail inquiry to the ADA about why its approval needs to be expressed in such a rococo manner went unanswered. The ADA may not be listening -- but let’s hope other organizations are.

Pamela McClennan, of Kingston, Ontario, wrote: “When I call Bell Canada, the service reps come on the line and say, ‘How may I provide you with excellent service?’ This is particularly infuriating because on several occasions recently I have had reason to call them to discuss the abysmal service they provide.” All right, Pamela, that one takes the cake -- or, rather, the autographed copy of my book “Your Own Words” I offered to give the reader who sent me the worst prepackaged sentence. We can’t blame the service reps. They’ve been told to say that. But could whoever writes those scripts for them please -- please! -- stop?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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