He Who Hesitates…

17 September, 2007

We’ve all read it, and probably written it, a thousand times. “If you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

When you look at it, it’s an utterly bizarre sentence. As if there are people out there who, when they require further information, invariably hesitate before asking for it. And yet it has passed into the very DNA of business correspondence across the globe.

An example. I occasionally deliver training courses on Effective Business Writing to Vietnamese employees. The aim of the course is to promote the ABC – Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity – of Business Writing, with a focus on what has come to be known as Global English; not the stilted, 1950s grammar book version still taught in most Vietnamese high schools, nor the impenetrable legalese that made up the standard business letter as recently as 20 years ago. The concept being that, as they are often writing in their second language to people reading in their second language, they really should keep it as short & simple as they possibly can.

So I tell them not to write ‘commence’ when they can write ‘start’, nor to write ‘at this present moment in time’ when they can write ‘currently’ or ‘at the moment’ (or even just ‘now’). All this is eagerly taken on board. Yet when I tell them to cast ‘do not hesitate to’ to the four winds (leaving the simpler but just as polite ‘please contact me’) they react as if I’d just drawn glasses and a moustache on a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

“They told us to write that at school!” “It is polite!” “Many foreigners use it!” That may be so, but it doesn’t mean you have to use it. It takes up space for a start – leave all the do-not-hesitates, the I-am-in-receipt-ofs and at-this-present-moment-in-times in your letter/email, and it will take twice as long to read. And the longer your sentences, the bigger the likelihood of your making a mistake.

So “do not hesitate to” has now become the leap of faith of my training course – encourage trainees to throw away the phrase, and everything else will naturally follow. If you have any thoughts, please do not hesitate to leave a comment.

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