I’m sure many of you read about the archaeological find along a windswept slope of peat and heather on Scotland’s Isle of Skye: the jawbone and tusk of a woolly mammoth dating from the mid-Pleistocene, which places it tens of thousands of years before the Sumerians chiseled the tale of Gilgamesh into clay tablets. This is significant because lining the jawbone nine feet out to the tip of the tusk appear tiny, consistent scratches from a life form not quite animal, but not yet human. Curiously, not one of the crude sentences describes a living creature doing something. Things happen by themselves. Archaeological linguists theorize that prehistoric “writers” constructed sentences like this because people had not yet been invented. A small sampling:
hanging, please find t-rex t-shirts
boiling, please find aardvark egg
impaled, please find bernie
no more carving on tusk until bernie extricated
As eons passed, animal bone became cave walls became clay tablets became the foreheads of Babylonian slaves. As recording methods evolved to parchment then papyrus, we see a few “people” appear in stories, doing the boiling of the eggs and the extricating of the fallen. But soon individuals grew into societies, then whole civilizations, and humans slowly recognized themselves as “people,” and they realized that people needed other people, and that that alone made them perhaps the luckiest people in the world. Concurrent with that realization, scribes recognized that things did not happen by themselves, that someone had to do them. But despite this historic revelation, the penchant of our pre-historic ancestors to inscribe sentences without people continues to suffuse our writing today. Things happen, but no one does them.
With seven billion “people” now on the planet to do things, we should all be amazed at how many professionals work hard to avoid using even one word that refers to a person. Things get attached, enclosed, needed, completed, performed, and worked on without one person in sight. It’s like robots do half of the business in this country. Or magic.
Attached, please find a letter of apology.
It is not possible to email a Word document containing suggested but not yet accepted edits.
It might not be necessary to hire an in-house attorney.
We hope the enclosed materials will be of interest.
The next time you write: “Significant progress has been made,” ask yourself, Who’s made the progress? and instead write, “Deirdre and Samantha have made significant progress.”
Or: “It has been a pleasure to work with . . . .” Who’s found it a pleasure? “I have enjoyed working with . . . .”
Or: “Steps are being taken to resolve . . . .” Who’s taking steps? “Rolf Rosenthal is working to resolve . . . .”
Or: “Our goal is to continually provide . . . .” That might be our goal, but what about us? “We at Zimex will continue to provide . . . .”
Whether you write to clients, customers, or colleagues, putting people in your sentences is the easiest way to enliven your writing. Or as someone else put it – who doesn’t matter – when you put people in your writing, a feeling deep in your soul says you were half now you’re whole. I have to go now; my tongue is stuck in my cheek.