I have always marveled at how a conductor can halt a symphony rehearsal, point to the third clarinet in the back row, and declare that he hit a flat note instead of a sharp during the previous measure.
That kind of concentration, skill, and passion – to be able to identify an error to improve the overall quality of the work – is astounding to me.
One could even imagine the insult to the ear of such a maestro who loves the work, the performance, and the presentation of the symphony to the audience.
To my own frustration, I have come to love language as a philharmonic virtuoso loves music. And much to the agony of my ears, mind, and nervous system (think nails on a chalkboard), I have had to endure careless amateurs attempting to play in the language symphony that is our verbal communication.
One such example is the misuse of the word “guarantee.” Merriam-Webster defines “guarantee” thusly: “An assurance for the fulfillment of a condition: as an agreement by which one person undertakes to secure another in the possession or enjoyment of something.”
Therefore, in January of 1969, when then-New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath “guaranteed” that his team would win Superbowl III he was making a completely absurd statement.
What on earth could “Broadway Joe” Namath have done to fulfill his “guarantee” if his team had failed to win the football game? Absolutely nothing. It was “fool speak.”
Conversely, according to Consumer Reports Magazine, in an article published September 23, 2014, “ … the Hannaford, Giant Eagle, and Bi-Lo grocery chains are so confident in the quality of their store brand products that they offer customers twice their money back if they fail to meet expectations.” THAT is a guarantee!
A guarantee, therefore, is a contract or agreement that the disappointed consumer will be remunerated at least to the degree that he or she was inconvenienced by the failure of the product, service, or experience. If I eat a crappy hamburger at your restaurant, the very least you do is give me my money back. If you want to be smart, you give me my money back and invite me to return for another meal “on the house” to make it up to me for my lost time and my disappointment – and to try to get me back into your restaurant to give you another chance so you don’t lose my patronage forever.
I recently had this experience with an Internet provider of products that prides itself on getting things to your house via their “same-day delivery” option. They charge for this service, or one could get “two-day delivery” for free. The company failed to deliver on their “guarantee,” yet when I contacted them they tried to make all manner of excuses for the delay. When I asked the customer service representative what they were prepared to do, she remarked, “We will try to deliver it to you the next day.” I repeated, “What is your guarantee?” The rep did not understand what I was asking. I explained, and there was a long pause on the other end of the line. (I had really stumped her, apparently.) I explained it again, reiterating that it was they who had guaranteed that the shipment would reach me by the deadline. They didn’t say they would “try” to get it to me the same day, they “guaranteed” that they would; “guarantee” was their word. The customer service representative offered to refund the “same-day delivery” fee, but I replied that the company gave me the choice of “same-day” or “two-day” delivery. I had chosen “same-day,” yet somehow the company unilaterally decided that I would receive the product under the free “two-day” option? My opinion on that: “No.” They ultimately resolved the issue to my (almost) satisfaction, but my compensation fell far short of the salary I usually receive for teaching English grammar and vocabulary. (And if you were hiring me as a business consultant, my rate would be much higher.)
Some folks might say that I was being difficult. Some would question whether the items I ordered were really needed the same day. (A lot of people seem to have trouble keeping their “eye on the ball” in discussions and debates.)
As a rabid baseball enthusiast, I have an extra measure of respect for the managers, players, and umpires who have made the extra effort to acquire a mastery of the rules. If one hits the ball, and runs from the batter’s box directly to third base, that person is “out.” Without meaningful rules, there would be no point at all in playing the game. It would be chaos, and unfair to say the least.
In these times of “spin,” “alternate facts,” and demonizing those who try to stand up and hold our leaders accountable for what they say, it behooves every one of us to refocus on how important language actually is.
By Keith Douglas Kramer
Photo by Keith Douglas Kramer