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Letter 1: Committee English

12 August 2014

Dear K.,

I am so happy to hear that you have joined the University as an executive officer. The news has brought back many fond memories of that verdant and sun-filled campus, to me more arcadia than academy. I envy you for the hours ahead of strolling down its roads and conversing with the highly capable and unfailingly friendly people thereon.

Despite the note of excitement in your letter I seem to discern a whiff of hesitation. You did admit you wanted to become a writer, an always admirable aspiration but one that is destined for disappointment and desperation. Writing is a vocation that fills you up so fully inside to prepare you for privation on the outside.

But I think you would discover new heaven and new earth within the cubicle of your office. You would find yourself pushing pen, or rather, punching the keyboard nowadays, for a substantial period of your working life. You would be practising what is probably the most neglected genre of English writing: Committee English.

Contrary to what most treatises on writing say, Committee English abhors the active voice. By embracing the passive construction and withholding the subjectivity of the writer, the draftsman of circulars, papers and minutes stakes out the entire terrain for deliberation, no more and no less, while remaining neutral and focused throughout. This is no mean feat of composition. The creative and expressive streak in you, as evidenced in your letter which made it such a delight to read, may go through some turbulence when you adapt to the writing style required of you at work. But believe me, you will adapt and emerge a more assured writer from the experience.

In my times I wouldn't have gone through a day in the office panic-free without knowing a few books are within reach. The hideous progeny of Dr. Frankenstein has his Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives and The Sorrows of Young Werther. I had my dictionary (actually three: one English, one Chinese, one English–Chinese), The Elements of Style and a set of writing manuals (《政府公文寫作手冊》) issued by the branch of the government now known as the Official Languages Division.

The Elements of Style is not just a book. It is a first-aid kit whose contents can treat your bruises in diction or stop your bleeding in grammar. Not sure what the difference between compared to and compared with? Go to it. Not sure if a singular or plural verb form is required in, say, 'The president, together with his cabinet, meets/meet the press'? Go to it. The little book must be in its umpteenth edition? Grab the latest if you can, but any edition would do you just as much good. Be prepared to court it life-long.

The Elements is like a Tang poem–short, rhythmic and reassuring. H. W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, on the other hand, is like Shakespeare's sonnets (please indulge me a little; the sonnets are good companion for a retiree like myself)–encyclopedic, approachable but unfathomable. You browse through The Elements looking for answers. But before you start to turn the pages of Fowler you don't even know what the questions are. I can assure you'd get addicted to it in no time.

I don't know what young executives today keep handy by their side. Do they bookmark Wikipedia on their computers? There is no escape from technology, is there, even for an old trade like writing? (I recently installed a Merriam-Webster on my mobile.) But exercise discretion when using Wikipedia (which is not always correct) or Google (which has more irrelevant stuff than the opposite). I would say being discreet is probably the most important attribute of an executive. Oh, don't ever confuse discreet with discrete!

But I must stop babbling on for fear I turn your cordiality and thoughtfulness into scorn and scare. Let me congratulate you once again for embarking on a career in a university, one in which you will succeed with dedication and temperance.

Sincerely yours,



P.S.: Please do not address me with 'Mr'. That is, if you would be so kind as to write again. Such designations as 'Dr' or 'Professor', however, must of course not be lightly dispensed with in your daily dealings with your superiors or members of the academic staff.


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