Writing-Defogging Blog

Some Troublesome Phrases You Probably Use

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

IF YOU WRITE, “IF YOU EVER HAVE ANY QUESTIONS, PLEASE DON’T HESITATE TO CALL . . . “ YOU’D BETTER BE PRETTY DARN BRILLIANT AND AVAILABLE 24/7

The ending of this letter from an art museum to people renewing their membership contains a writing blooper so common we don’t even notice it:

“If you ever have any questions as you continue to enjoy the Museum, please do not hesitate to call . . . “

As Charlie Brown would say, AARGH!

Let’s pick it apart: “If you ever have any questions . . .” So when is ever? Can I call at three in the morning? On Saturday afternoon, just as Antiques Roadshow is beginning? I doubt it. Be more specific, e.g. if you have any questions on weekdays from 9 to 5.

“If you ever have any questions . . .” I should call with questions about what? Anything? What’s the meaning of life? Where can I get a good egg cream? Why isn’t George Clooney married? You need to be clearer about what questions you are willing and/or able to respond to, such as the location of Tuesday’s meeting or the layout of the annual report.

“. . . please don’t hesitate . . .” There’s no need to write this unless, in fact, the recipient might hesitate to call. If I get a letter from Queen Elizabeth
or some other bigwig, I might hesitate to call; if it’s from Macys, telling me they overcharged me for my Ugg boots, believe me, I won’t hesitate to call.

“. . . to call.” How? Where? Put the phone number right here at the end of the sentence.

(P.S. About 15 years after receiving the art museum letter, I was teaching a writing class through the human resources department of a university and using that letter as an example of problematic writing. An attendee identified herself as a former art museum employee who worked in the membership department – a clerical job, it was her first job out of college – and she was the one who received the open-ended calls from members I’d predicted the letter would encourage. She shared two examples of inappropriate questions that the “any questions” part of the letter seemed to license.

Q. What is that white substance you use to hang posters to walls that does not mar the paint or damage the paper?

A. Tack-it.

Q. Where does one buy such a substance?

A. You can try CVS.

And another:

Q. My cleaning lady was sweeping in the hall and hit my Ming vase, sending it crashing to the ground. What is recommended to fix this?

A. Duco cement. Archeologists use this to adhere artifacts because it can be removed completely.

Q. Where can one obtain Duco cement?

A. CVS.

No, she didn’t leave the Museum to work for CVS.)

But here’s an example of using this “if you have any questions . . . “ concept perfectly, from a shop-at-home TV station to customers:

“If you have any questions about this order, please call Customer Service at 888-888-9876. For your convenience, we can be reached from 7am-1am Eastern Time, seven days a week.”

This paragraph shines with its more limited scope and precision. Lovely.

But if you ever have any more questions about it, please don’t feel free to contact me.


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