The Final Why

by Mark L. Levinson

“What are you doing right now?” the boss said.

“I’m working,” I said.  It was true.  I had the news, Gmail, Yahoo mail, and Nelly Furtado fan page all minimized.

“Fine, but what are you doing right now?”

“Right now?  I’m going through the file of error messages, correcting the English.”

“But what are you doing right now?”

“This very moment?  I’ve noticed several places where the phrase ‘due to’ is used wrongly.  So I’m searching the whole file for it, and where it’s wrong I’m replacing it with ‘because of.’”


“It’s because ‘due’ is an adjective, and an adjective needs a noun to modify.  Often —”

“How many of our users do you suppose even know what an adjective is?”

“It’s not a question of knowing.  It’s more a question of feeling, when you read it, that the material was written at a company where professionalism governs everything. If you see writing that looks professional, then you believe that the coding — which you can’t see — is also professional.”

“‘Due’ is an adjective,” the boss repeated.  “So when we say ‘Due to slow sales, we are cutting the budget,’ —”

“Bad English,” I said.

“And this matters to who, you say?”

“A fine point like that?  Maybe for only a few people it matters a lot. But why make a bad impression on them? And maybe for a large number of people it has only a tiny effect, but tiny things add up.”

“Tiny expenses add up too.  Suppose it costs the company fifteen shekels for you to change ‘due to’ to ‘because of’ in the error messages.  Do you think the result is another fifteen shekels of profit?

“Granted whatever you do to the English is an improvement,” the boss continued. “Your touch on the English makes us look good, it makes the product easier to use, it reduces complaints and requests for help, it builds good will, and maybe somewhere — maybe on some suburban side street in Boroondara — a customer is thinking of buying another copy of the product as a Father’s Day gift but seeing ‘due to’ used wrongly in an error message will change his mind.  Maybe.  But I think you’re not even fighting our fight any more.”

“I’m not what?”

“When we didn’t have a manual yet, when we didn’t know what to name the commands on our menus, when we needed our business cards spelled right, we couldn’t have done without you.  But now the product is in release, and I don’t see the ROI from fine-polishing the error messages.  It’s not the company’s benefit that you’re working for now.  You know the sculpture outside our Tel Aviv building?”

“Sure.  I don’t know where you could find something uglier if you wanted to.  Maybe the loser’s bench in a Tsipi Livni lookalike contest.”

“Whatever your opinion, that sculptor had his own idea of art and he pursued it.  He didn’t care about who was paying him.  A municipal bylaw says that if you’re constructing an office building that big, you won’t get approval without a sculpture.  So business has to subsidize art, like it or not.  It’s like back in the shtetl, where the wealthy tradesman would support a Torah scholar, except that it’s compulsory.  Well, you’re not my Torah scholar.”

“For sure nobody ever called me that.”

“But you have your own religion.  I know why you don’t believe there’s such a thing as diminishing returns for further improving English.  It’s because you believe the Messiah will come, speaking Oxford English, as soon as the whole world knows when to use ‘lay’ and when to use ‘lie,’ when to use ‘due to’ and when to use ‘because of.’  You’re devoting yourself to your holy war, not to moving the company’s product off the shelves.  And I wouldn’t mind funding a perfectionist writer in residence, as some kind of public service, if we were an operation that lived on cost-plus contracts and threw around grants and scholarships for the sake of prestige.  But we need to focus all our efforts on staying afloat.”

“Is there something you’d rather I work on than this, until the next version starts looking definable?”

“Right.  Because what would we do without you when the version starts looking definable?  You’re the only person who can pick up where you left off and not need to find out the hard way how the product works, where the files are kept, how the documentation is put together, who’s who, and what’s what.  So the money we spend to keep you around through the slack time is covered by what we save later, in time and in quality, by not needing to start from scratch with somebody else.  Or is it?”

“You mean it isn’t?”

“Or maybe when the time comes we can hire you back on contract by the hour.  More than you’re making per hour as an employee.  Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it?”

“I’m more of a fulltime, in-house type.”

“I’m more of an accordion player, but no one will hire me to play accordion.  We all compromise.  Put yourself out there.  Market yourself.  You know what?  You have a million opinions.  Write a column somewhere.”

“I’ve done that for the last two years.”

“I look forward to reading it,” he said, and he shook my hand.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.