Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday Funnies: QUO VADIT The

I sent an email congratulating a friend of mine (redundant, but comfortable, no?) for having made a very public—and very accurate—call on the very short life of the Venezuela-Columbia pissing match. I’d be happy to reveal his name, except I’m actually going to call him out for his response:
“XXX is presently out of office. He will return on Tuesday, 8 September. For immediate response, please contact YYY at yyy@...”
I wondered if I was the only one tempted to send yet another message asking him where he would be running for governor. This, of course, was an out-of-office auto-reply message. But the content is not automatically generated, and other auto-reply messages from the same firm correctly state that the auto-sender is “out of the office.” I add that my friend is a native English speaker and a prolific writer and, even more, speaker.

English-language titles and headlines have routinely dropped articles as far back as I can remember, but rarely if ever has this affected the main body of what we write. Native English speakers instinctively know what works and what doesn’t with regard to the bane of non-native English—particularly non-Indo-European—speakers worldwide. But the Internet, like any medium, changes the way we write, and the term “Out of Office AutoReply” is ubiquitous. So, have you seen this locution “…is out of office” as well? If so, we may be observing the obsolescing process of a definite article before a noun, an event that must be as rare as a total eclipse of the sun.


Janne Morén said...

As all upstanding, intelligent, suave world citizens of high culture and impeccable taste - those enlightened people, in other words, that speak Swedish - know, there was never a place for a definite article before any noun, no matter how deprived-looking.

No, what you do is of course make the definite form a grammatic suffix of the noun itself. And as you don't want the unwashed masses to walk around actually use that inflection every which way, you naturally make the exact form dependent on the gender of the noun. And to further rise above the degenerate latin-language speakers in south Europe with their two genders, you choose to have four genders instead of two (animate and inanimate object), and make sure that there is no possible connection between the meaning of any one noun and its gender. As it'd be a waste to go to all this trouble just for nouns, make sure verbs and adjectives all have to follow this gender-related declination as well. Oh, and it all changes again for plurals.

I am very sympathetic to unfortunate people like my wife that force themselves to learn Swedish; I am also very happy I got to learn it as a toddler when I had no idea it was supposed to be difficult. ^_^

PaxAmericana said...

No, I haven't seen this, and I've spent the last 20 years in the cubicle madness of the IT-military-industrial complex. But shortened, somewhat incomprehensible English is pretty common.

In addition, there are rules for technical writing that are now pushing to avoid "the" in some situations. So, for example, one is supposed to write "See ABC Administrator's Guide for more information." One could argue that technical Japanese is even further from theoretical Japanese than this.

Jun Okumura said...


Four genders, Janne? I agree that the Swedish Bikini Team deserves an entire gender of their own, but what’s the other one?

“See ABC Administrator's Guide for more information.”

My guess is that those same rules do not allow you to drop the “the” in non-declaratory sentences; to wit, “The ABC Administrator’s Guide shall not be construed to…”, not “ABC Administrator’s Guide shall not be construed to…”.

Zach Baran said...

"I add that my friend is a native English speaker and a prolific writer and, even more, speaker."

Is it me, or did you drop an article yourself in this sentence?

Dropping the "the" from phrases like "Out of Office Reply" has less to do with the influence of the Internet and more to do with the fact that "Out of Office" is used as an adjective. We say "out of body experience", but if we use similar syntax in a sentence we would specify which body: "I will drive back to Tokyo when the substance is out of my body."

Jun Okumura said...


“I add that my friend is a native English speaker and a prolific [writer and, even more, speaker].”

Drop “, even more,” and the reason becomes even clearer.

I agree that my friend treated “out of office” as an adjective. But how did he come to do that? Have you seen that on a sign in the real, physical world? On the other hand, you see that in your email account all the time. If this becomes a common—and eventually accepted—adjectival phrase, then I’ll attribute it to the influence of the Internet unless I see evidence to the contrary.


In my response to PaxAmericana, I meant “non-imperative”, not “non-declaratory” sentences.

Zach Baran said...

Your friend used "out of office" as an adjectival phrase, or he just forgot to type the "the". And you are right in that it should be "out of the office", or at the very least "out-of-office".

But I don't think the Internet is to blame for the proliferation of this kind of abbreviation. We've been altering nouns or phrases forever in order to make them into adjectives. I've given you "out of body" as an example. There's also "end of year":
(keeping with the Governor motif)

Jun Okumura said...

“…the Internet is to blame for the proliferation of this kind of abbreviation.”

I’m not making such a claim at all, Zach; I merely suspect that that “the Internet is to blame for this specific abbreviation” and suggest that the Internet is likely to bring other changes to our language. (Did anyone write LOL before the Internet?) As for your example, note that it says, “…our end of year Leather Blow Out”, not “Blow Out at end of year.” To return to the original example, my friend’s out-of-office autoreply (an expression to which I have no objections) did not say, “XXX is in an out-of-office situation.” Okay, no one would use the latter except as part of an attempt at some humor, but you do see my point, don’t you?

Zach Baran said...

Okay, now I see your point. I had thought that you were trying to pin the missing definite article in "Out of Office Reply" on the internet.

I may start using "I am currently having an out-of-office experience." in my auto-reply messages.

Jun Okumura said...


You are welcome. It could be confusing at times, though. What if I emailed, say, Sarah Palin and got back, “I am currently having an out-of-office experience”? or Bill Clinton, and, “…in-office experience”—bada boom!

On a different note, I do believe that if “I am out of office” ever become generally accepted, it will be due to the Internet. Think what it would have been like before the Internet. I would have called you and heard the message, “Zach Baran is currently out of his office…” Before the phone, I would have visited your office, only to see the sign, “OUT TO LUNCH” or simply “OUT.” There are no headings on verbal messages or doors. It is only when a batch of information is waiting for your selective attention that the need for an arresting title/headline arises, which in turn provides an incentive to eliminate semantically superfluous articles.