A manager who couldn’t resist tinkering with written reports

David was a civil servant who worked at a government establishment in the open countryside.  He was a dapper little man with a neat moustache and round ‘Schubert’ spectacles that used to look old fashioned but are now in great demand.

David had two notable characteristics.  Firstly, he was a keen bird watcher and always had a pair of binoculars with him.  The grounds of the government installation where David worked were extensive (the site of a World War II airfield) and featured many mature trees.  David would spend his lunchtimes wandering through the grounds looking at birds and entering details of his various sightings in a pocket notebook.  In his office was a much more powerful pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod.  He’d always have half and eye on the window and, disconcertingly, he’d suddenly break off a conversation and rush to the binoculars and train them on some bird that had just come into view.

Secondly, David was fastidious when it came to words and grammar.  His tendency towards over-precision was, quite possibly, involuntary since his grandfather had been part of a celebrated team that had worked on a revision of The Oxford English Dictionary.  David was addicted to (in this order) his grandfather’s dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the crossword in The Times.  If he completed the crossword, he would be in a good mood; if he didn’t he was irritable.

David had some pet hates – not individuals but expressions.  For example, if someone said, ‘You know’, David would say pointedly, ‘No, I do not’.  If someone said, ‘Have a nice day’ David would puff himself up and say, ‘Thank you, but I have other plans’.  If someone said, ‘OK?’ rhetorically at the end of a sentence, David would make a point of saying, ‘No, it is not’ (he couldn’t bring himself to say, ‘No, it isn’t’).  Since the OK was an automatic reflex on the part of the speaker, David’s calculated response, after three or four repetitions, invariably brought the conversation to a halt.

David’s subordinates were frequently required to submit detailed written reports giving the results of investigations.  David insisted on personally signing off each report before it left the department.  This gave David the opportunity (an opportunity he relished!) to check the grammar and punctuation.  Of course, he always found it necessary to make corrections.  Sometimes it was inserting a comma here and there, sometimes breaking up long sentences into smaller ones and sometimes it meant rewriting complete sections.  David made these alterations in red and tossed the offending report back to the author for correction.

As you can imagine, David’s subordinates resented having their reports rejected in this way – especially when it was necessary to rewrite long passages and resubmit them to David.  Sometimes a report would become trapped in an iterative loop as David edited it again and again seeking perfection.

One of David’s subordinates decided to conduct some damage limitation experiments.  He drew up a list of some of David’s pet hates – missed apostrophes, split infinitives, direct questions with no question mark, commas rather than semicolons, and excessive use of brackets, words like data, criteria and phenomena treated as singular – and so on.  He found that if he deliberately inserted three or four of these errors in a report, it came back with far fewer corrections than before.

Having made the discovery that David must have something to change, and that his pet hates were guaranteed to attract his attention, everyone started to use the ‘deliberate mistakes’ ploy.  David, the purist, was happy (whether he ever realised what was happening is uncertain).  And so were his subordinates, who enjoyed a dramatic decrease in irksome rewrites.

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