Dispatches from the Subject Line

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Much as it pains me to confess this, I do enjoy buying books online. Yes, I know it’s not the same as browsing in a bookshop, admiring the colourful spines, taking away your chosen book in a paper bag and all of that utterly timeless loveliness. There is, though, a different kind of pleasure to be taken in the click-and-wait process of online book-shopping. I can’t help feeling a little spark of Christmas Eve excitement in anticipation of a parcel landing on the doormat. Occasionally, if you opt for a slower, more affordable delivery rate, you’ll have a few days to forget a parcel is on its way at all, allowing for an element of surprise when it does then arrive. I enjoy all of this. That is, I enjoy all of it apart from the wording of the obligatory confirmation email, the subject line of which says, upsettingly: “Your item has dispatched.”

My item has dispatched what? I glare at the subject line, at this poor, abused transitive verb meaning ‘to send something out or away’, forced into an intransitive function it cannot possibly perform. My item isn’t actively sending something out or away. It’s certainly not dispatching itself; somebody (the subject of the sentence) has to be dispatching it to me. Somehow, the company in question – a massive, jungly online store; you know the one – has decided that this distinction doesn’t exist. It wasn’t ever thus. I remember the days when the verb was used correctly in these emails: “Your item has been dispatched.” That sentence correctly reported that a person had sent out the item. Then, one day, the tiny but incredibly important ‘been’ was discarded. Just like that.

One can imagine the board meeting at which the wording of the confirmation email was discussed (or – yes, I can play this game, too – at which it discussed). A fat, impatient communications executive sat down in a chair, put his feet up on the table, and said this: “Subject, object, what’s all this baloney? Delete that extra word. Our customers don’t have time. They know what we mean. Now get out of my office.”

Well, yes, naturally we do know what they mean. There’s no loss of sense; I know my item is on its way. But, that’s not the point. It is incorrect, and it is a wound to the logic of the English language. Just think of the rate at which this company is sending out items to people all over the world, along with their poisonous little confirmation email. Objects are ‘dispatching’ of their own accord all over the place. It hurts.

There’s no harm at all in playing with language to build different effects; that’s my biggest joy in life. To do that, though, you have to play safely, and know how your tools work. In 2010, though, it seems that many people have downed tools completely. We find verbs forced to act as nouns, nouns as verbs, and all manner of other words formed just by wilfully plonking bits of the language together and hoping for the best. I give you the new, 21st-century noun ‘disconnect’, used mainly by pretentious, ignorant business people: “We’re experiencing a disconnect from our clients.” Spare a thought for the noun ‘gift’, forced into a new life – or death – as a completely hideous, clumsy verb: “Our clients have gifted us their custom.” And let’s have a moment’s silence in acknowledgement of a particularly newfangled type of verb, formed simply by shoving a prefix in front of a noun: ‘de-train’, ‘re-team’, ‘un-friend’.

I complain often, widely and vociferously about linguistic negligence. Last weekend alone I inserted three missing apostrophes into a pub quiz poster (“Its big. Its clever. Its at 8pm”) and responded to a grammatically flawed job advertisement not with an application but with a corrected proof of the advert. I’m sure I’ll make several more corrections this week; I consider them good deeds. I usually anticipate defensive embarrassment from the corrected party (not, as some might like to say, the ‘correctee’; it is not acceptable to stick ‘ee’ on the end of any verb and assume it’s a real word). A bit of embarrassment at least shows you care a mistake has been made. But the response I generally get is one of indifference: “Oh, yes, I see what you mean, but never mind; it still makes sense.”

The delivery confirmation email from the online bookshop does make sense, yes, and it may not strike you as something about which one should become particularly exercised. I’m afraid that, for me, the sentence “your item has dispatched” is indicative of a much broader cavalier attitude to language, which is a problem worthy of ardent campaigning. I have considered making a small personal protest by opting out of shopping at this particular online megastore (or maybe ‘e-megastore’, because these days you can apparently bung an ‘e-’ on anything to indicate an online variant), but I fear such a small gesture would go no further than ensuring my own private protection from the confirmation email. And, of course, it would be my loss: I would miss out on the dispatch (yes, the noun is permissible) of book-shaped parcels from the jungle to my doormat.

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