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Do you understand? Is English becoming dangerously unclear?

I had a couple of days last week where I was grappling with the English language. Not my own version of it. Nor, I hasten to add, that of my fellow contributors to Only Connect (well, perhaps a little tussle in one or two cases). There were three separate bouts but I will concentrate on just one. I think I lost.

It involved the Bank of Mum and Dad, run by my wife and me. The language used within this enterprise is almost always clear and unambiguous. We are avid readers of the Financial Times’ Weekend edition (and its excellent FT Money section) and The Economist, both of which employ people who know how to write in clear English. Indeed, The Economist’s Style Guide to English Usage, now in its 12th edition, is deservedly a best-seller and was a well-thumbed paperback in my old training company’s library. We have had the same independent financial adviser for some thirty years and appreciated, most of the time, his ability to make complicated financial matters comprehensible.

Our son is in the process of buying a flat in London. I got a text message out of the blue last Wednesday from a company called Thirdfort. I had no idea who or what they were but they obviously knew me. Not only did they have my phone number but we were, apparently, on first-name terms:

“Hi Richard

Please complete your verification check for (purchase of) Purchase of [address of son’s hoped-for flat]. For your information to be sent to [son’s solicitor], you must complete all of the requested tasks on the Thirdfort app. Download the app here...For more information, help and live chat, visit...”

I contacted our son. No, this was not yet another scam but was, in fact, the norm now when anybody in England and Wales is gifted money to buy a property. The Bank of M & D was required to assure our son’s conveyancing solicitor that the money we had given our son over the past fifteen years had not come indirectly from some Albanian, Russian or Colombian crime syndicate. Was the bank, in other words, innocent of money-laundering?

You may be wondering what I am belly-aching about. After all, the language of that text message was pretty clear. It was, although I did wonder why I was being asked to complete a verification check I had not known I had started. Or did “complete” in the first case mean “fill in”? Hmm. I downloaded the app on to my smartphone. All was clear. It told me that the verification process would take “two minutes”.

An hour and twenty minutes later I had yet to satisfy the app that I had not spent my working life washing dirty money. Some of this time was spent trying to get my phone to scan various pages of my passport and take photos of various sides of my face (still and video, the latter while speaking) without the app accusing me of having too much glare on my passport, too dark a face, too light a face; of photographing text which was out-of-focus or of data and face which was outside an ever-moving frame. I soon had Alex in Thirdfort’s chat room holding my hand virtually, writing encouraging texts. I think he was human.

Together we got through to the stage where I had to give the exact source of the money the bank had given our son. This article could have been asking why there has been so much fuss about data privacy when English law apparently requires one to reveal the most intimate financial information to complete strangers. But I’ll stick to the language issue.

The Thirdfort app is a splendid piece of software. But its creators (and the lawyers who demand their clients use it) have made an assumption: its users are dextrous and computer-savvy. But who are the users? The Bank of M & D mostly (plus the Bank of his 94-year old Grandma in my son’s case; this bank neither possesses a smartphone nor knows what words like “app”, “download” or “scan” mean). We older folk are not as nimble-fingered or IT-knowledgable as we might wish. So, when the technology fails or, more accurately, we oldies fail to use the technology correctly, we rely on people like Alex or the app itself to communicate clearly with us. And that is when it all goes wrong.

I won’t bore you with all the examples of miscommunication betwixt app, Alex and me. One example will suffice. The app had asked me and my bank (my real one – Nat West) to both agree that it could link briefly (for 20 seconds I think it said) to my bank account to check that it really existed. NatWest obviously had been asked to do this countless times before and instantly agreed and we went through various security checks before the link happened. Or I thought happened. Alex texted me:

“Hi Richard it’s Alex from Thirdfort. The tech team have reviewed your account and we were unable to link in to your bank successfully. As a result there is a pending taking within your app to complete...”

No, I didn’t understand (and still don’t) what a pending taking is either. Anyway, I went back to the app to see what I was required to do now that the link to my bank had apparently failed. It said this:

“You should send a photo or pdf of your bank statements for the last 6 months.”

I exploded. Not only was this an invasion of my privacy beyond reason, it was going to require 16 separate photos to be taken and somehow sent to the app. I told Alex that this was “utter nonsense” and that I would send a photo of my most recent statement only. He could not see the problem. He thought my proposal was fine. I pointed out to him that, as had already happened several times over the previous 70 or so minutes, my understanding of the instructions in the app (let alone his texts) did not seem to match his. My reading of this latest instruction was that I had to send all my bank statements covering the last 6 months. This was 16 pages and so required 16 screenshots. That was not Alex’s understanding. Only “a” photo had been asked for. So that meant one screenshot of one page.

Alex was courteous throughout, as indeed are his colleagues Beth, Emily and Lauren if the rave reviews they have had on Trustpilot in the past week are to be believed (though the splendidly-surnamed Paul Spendlove seems to have had similar miscommunication problems to me: his 2-star review is entitled “Painful”). Alex apologised “for the inconvenience.” and said he had “forwarded your comments to the product development team as we are always trying to improve the product.” He signed off by confirming that “your report has been generated successfully and shared with the law firm. You do not need to do anything else.” Implication: a photo of one page of a bank statement was enough. Whatever the instructions may mean, the computer, s/he say Yes.

Information Technology 1, English 0.

My point? Has English become so unclear that even two native English speakers are incapable of agreeing what a sentence as simple as “You should send a photo or pdf of your bank statements for the last 6 months” means? By coincidence, Janan Ganesh made exactly the same point in an article in the FT on 5 June, entitled “The real threat to the empire of English.” Type the title into Mr Google and you will get several links to transcripts of the article which don’t require you to subscribe to the FT.

Which reminds me. What does “Subscribe” mean to you, dear reader? Mea culpa, if you think it always means you have to pay money. I have discovered that several potential readers of Only Connect have been put off from subscribing because they think this requires payment. One even wrote to me begging to tell me what she owed me. She had pressed the Subscribe button, typed in her email address and was getting an email every fortnight with a new issue without paying for it. But the teenagers who probably designed the Wix platform, on which Only Connect is produced, appear to know their Latin. Subscribe these days means signing up to receive something. Just as it originally did: writing (scribing) your name at the bottom (sub) of a document. If you have to pay for it, you will soon know. You will be asked for your bank details (though I hope not for 6 months worth of bank statements). It’s only us oldies who think subscribing must involve payment.

You see, English just ain’t clear enough.


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