Bad Grammar Bandits

My iPhone chimes politely, in the same manner as Jeeves coughing unobtrusively to attract the attention of the peerless Mr Wooster.

And there it is: the chime signals a new e-mail. It purports to be the Halifax Bank PLC.

“Dear Halifax customer”, it opens, with all the dusky promise of a British Airways hostess.

And then, so early on in the venture, it begins to flounder. “Your Halifax account”, it continues, “showed an unusual activities this morning.”

Something akin to a Klaxons electromechanical horn interrupts my reverie. My antennae are up. My schoolteachers did their job well and I know my English grammar. But my masked cyberfriends, it seems, do not.

They are valiant in their 21st century stand-and-deliver attempt. But somehow I feel they are simply not striking the right tone.

“What to do next?”

Hold on, hold on. I feel like the Pythonesque Roman soldier in ‘Life Of Brian’ who discovers Brian is attempting to cover a very important building indeed in appalling Latin. “Romans they go the ‘ouse?” he roars at the messiah-substitute. And then he gives him a stiff grammar lesson in how to phrase Romans Go Home properly.

“Now go and write it out a hundred times,” he concludes.

I find, indeed, that I am less horrified at the fact that someone is trying to defraud me of all my hard-earned money and possibly my identity: and rather more concerned that they have, frankly, done rather a botched job.

If Mr Halifax was really trying to let me know that someone on Miami beach was spending my worldly goods on the high life, he might try: “It is imperative that you contact our online banking service immediately;” or “Please contact us as a matter of urgency using the link below.”

The problem with “What to do next?” is that I can hear the twang of distant shores when I read it, not The High Street.

One must approach fraud of this kind with a bluff, We-Once-Ran-The-Empire imperiousness, the kind of pointless pomposity which has been part and parcel of communications between bankers and the British public for time immemorial.

Not that our banks use this tone in their marketing.

I have, in the past, written sniffily of the transatlantic plasticharm which is infiltrating messages to customers in the big banks. It is some years now since Barclays Bank spent seven million pounds revamping its branches to make its communications more accessible to the Neanderthal on the street.

On coming in, they are greeted not by ‘Welcome’ but by ‘Hi’. Leaving elicits the inevitable ‘Bye’. Instead of sitting down, customers are invited to “take the weight off their feet”. And the Bureau De Change has become the more prosaic ‘Travel Money’.

It is interesting, though, that the banks remain formal in their letter writing. Their transactions regarding overdrafts, limits and mortgages are formal in the extreme. Presumably, because we have their money and they want to exercise a little control.

An outstanding example of that tone comes from a man who was many things, banker and writer among them: a man called Walter Bagehot.

Bagehot was a strange combination. Operating in the mid nineteenth century, he studied and gained a masters in intellectual and moral philosphy, and was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn: but he preferred his family’s shipping and banking business. Not content with this he wrote prolifically and eventually, with exceptionally fortunate family connections, became editor-in-chief of The Economist.

The man was an intellectual heavyweight with natural authority. And he called for plain speaking in the banking industry.

In ‘Lombard Street’, a portrait of the banking industry, he writes: ” A notion prevails that the money market is something so impalpable that it can only be spoken of in very abstract words, and that therefore, books on it must be exceedingly difficult.

“But I maintain that the money market is as concrete and real as anything else; that it can be described in as plain words; that it is the writer’s fault if what he says is not clear.”

While Bagehot’s words are crystal clear, they are also grammatically correct. And, indeed, they maintain a tone which is unremittingly formal.

Which brings me back to my e-mail, which has even more gems of grammatical banditry to fling our way.

“if you feel this message has been sent to you in error, (new paragraph inserted here) Go to your online account and check your current balance(s) for your account(s).


This cyber-highwayman doesn’t even know how many accounts I hold. Does he think I was born yesterday? This is the equivalent of holding up two old English sausages instead of the conventional pistols. “Stand there, Madam, and I must ask you to empty your purse (s) and pocket (s).”

But it is the closing sentences which show that this is not Mr Halifax, but a naughty nicker from a distant land. Because it is the most un-British of codas.

“We appreciate your business. It’s truly our pleasure to serve you.”

Never, in the history of British banking, have such mealy-mouthed protestations been made, by any to any. The stiff upper lip is alive and well. We shall fight the grammar bandits on the beaches….

Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth.


36 thoughts on “Bad Grammar Bandits

  1. I get a letter from Allstate Auto Insurance every six weeks advising me of the advantages of switching to their company. I have had Allstate for 17 years. Much banking and credit card communication in the
    USA has been outsourced via satellite to India but even your English English can be a bother to understand and Indian English is complicated with unusual pitch and tone. Now much outsourcing is going to cjina and Japan and their English is fairly accurate except for word order. There is a joke among computer gamers that a Japanese combat game when finished speaks ” Men dead all lose you game over”

    1. I love that, Carl πŸ˜€ Those who use their less than perfect English talents to gainful ends are the salt of the earth. But my guys were clearly bandits out for my money: and their techniques mean one would have to be very dense indeed to lose any money in their direction.

  2. Perhaps the malaise hasn’t hit England yet, but some of the spelling and grammar in genuine communications ftom South African banks lately make it difficult to tell the difference.

    I have thought of offering my professional services as an editor to the villains, but I would have to study up on the errors perpetrated in the genuine articles, and insert them, if I were to earn my fee.

  3. When the provisional license arrived for Techie last week, he questioned the grammar in the third paragraph…. a rather convoluted sentence that had to be read at least twice to gain the real intended sense of it.

    that’s ma boy πŸ™‚

    1. Sounds like he’d make the perfect sub editor: big bucks (well, pounds) can be his if he wishes for a career correcting the deplorable bloopers of journalists on a national rag!

  4. Oh Kate! One more in a string of good ones. . .you have a perfect record so far. Perhaps you remember my posting on the Spam comments on my blog I have received. I have yet to figure out what language the person who wrote them spoke natively, but I am in serious doubt that it is English. Here’s a link to two of them:

    You will note that not only is bad grammar present, I would say that it is the only type, and barely exitant!

    Next: I cannot get onto your father’s blog all of a sudden! I click on it everywhere and it keeps telling me that address does not exist! It did this morning, because I wrote in some of my usual long-winded comments. Could you check it out for me? I want to read more of his poetry!

    1. Paula, sorry you’ve been having problems! I’ve had a go at accessing Dad’s site from a range of devices, but I can still access it. We’re a Mac-only dynasty though. I’ll have a word to let Dad know…hopefully we’ll get you back on soon…

  5. Ah, but now you have me wondering two things…
    1. what would be a proper close if truly from your side of the pond?
    2. what alert tone do you use on your iPhone? I did so love how you described it!

    (I’m curious if they are universal. I use something that would be glass being chimed if not digitized)

    1. Closing a letter from a bank: probably something formal but solicitous: “Thank you for your continued custom. Please don’t hesitate to contact us should you experience further problems” or “Rest assured your account is in safe hands: please inform us immediately should you experience further difficulties.”

      Now we can go and set up our own, much more grammatically correct, scam πŸ˜€

      My iPhone chime: one single, discreet ‘bong’.

  6. Being a multi racial and multi language ‘Rainbow Nation’ we often have English translations in writing beneath our TV programmes – these are sometimes a laugh a minute too!

  7. Oh Kate you made me laugh. Look at this, from a brochure for tents I had to proofread recently:

    “Contemporary yet classic, cultural yet global, our designs bring an element of innovation and indulgence to the world of luxury canvas accommodation. The interior designers with whom we associate are inspired by creativity – running free, filled with passion for what they do. Our approach to decor is constantly evolving, while the quality and uniqueness remains in every interior created.”

    Tents. I ask you with tears in my eyes!

  8. I quite understand your position but you do realise that ‘Bureau De Change’ is French and ‘Travel Money’ is English, don’t you? πŸ™‚

    1. Wouldn’t folk know what β€œoffice of exchange” – (a more literal translation) would mean? Travel money is so ‘dumbed down’.

      I feel Barclays took a wrong turn in this and the other examples you give.

  9. You had me laughing to the very end! I love how you go from talking about an email problem we all experience (I don’t even bother reporting them as spam anymore — just hit DELETE) to a short history lesson then back to the email. Your last lines are great, especially etcetera, etcetera. (Could clearly hear Yul Brynner in the King and I)

  10. Great post! I am often accused of playing the role of self-appointed grammar police in our home (to everyone’s irritation).

  11. Maybe that’s why we don’t see Howard in the Halifax ads anymore – they’ve sent him to night school to learn grammar.

  12. Honestly! If one is to be defrauded, then the minimum requirement is to be taken to the cleaners in the Queen’s English.

    Mind you, if the “truly” was considered offensive, at least the blow was softened by getting the previous word right – apostrophe included – something that I always need to think about for a moment!

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