Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Communication 101: Why You Should Use Plurals for Client, Customer and Student

When I worked at one of Australia's Big Four banks, I had the interesting task of training 90 odd staff members to write letters in response to customers' complaints.
Examples of letters provided to me by senior management were in a word, woeful. They reflected very badly on the bank's image and were unsuitable from a bank with such vast resources.
Notable during my interaction with the learners was the wide use of "the customer" when referring to the bank's customers.
"The" in English is called the definite article and always refers to one of something unless the noun to which it refers is plural as in "the boys' hats." Otherwise it's one boy, one winner, one school, one something.
The constant use of "the customer" sounded as if the bank had only one customer, not several million.
I'd picked up on this peculiarity when listening to people talk about the client, the student and the patient.
Referring to "the student" when you mean all students leads to problematical syntax and expression.
For example, if you begin a sentence talking about the student, you need to retain singular case throughout the rest of the sentence. It's not good form to write something like, "The student should always beware of traffic when they leave the school." Instead, "Students should always beware of traffic when they leave the school."
Another issue, not now as common as it was, is the "his/her" dilemma. It's common practice now to use "their" when gender isn't an issue. Previously, it was sub-standard to write something akin to, "The student should bring his/her computer to school." If you know which student to which you are referring, perhaps you should use his/her name. If you mean all students, say so; "Students should bring their computers to school."
Further, if you know what a customer's gender is, use gender relevant language rather than gender neutral language.
For example, if referring in an internal document to a female customer, don't say, "The customer was advised to... " Instead say, "She was advised to... " or use the person's name and title as in, "Ms Brown was advised to... "
There is nothing inherently wrong with stating "The customer was advised to... " in the above example, if you have written one or more instances of the latter expressions. It helps to reduce repetition.
Makes sense doesn't it?
It produces much more fluid and accurate writing if you use singular when you are dealing with singular topics and plural when dealing with plural topics.
My advice to the bank employees was to:
1. use a customer's name if addressing an individual customer whose name was known
2. use plural for everything that correctly refers to all customers
3. prefer gender-based language when gender is known
4. retain the same case throughout a sentence
The course I designed and delivered turned out to be very successful and led to the development of a large bank of standard letters that could be used as is or modified for specific purposes.
What do you think? Have you run into this communication challenge before?

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