August 21, 2007

Explaining the systems slowdown

Walt Bettinger, the president and chief operating office of the Charles Schwab brokerage, sent out a personally signed message to customers on August 18 in which the following was the main content:

On August 16, you may have experienced difficulty accessing Schwab online or through our phone centers as a result of our systems slowdown. We want to apologize and let you know what happened.

In the process of expanding system capacity earlier that morning, a systems slowdown occurred. As a result, if you tried to access Schwab online or via the phone, you may have experienced slower-than-normal service, or in some cases, may have been unable to access our services at all.

So let me summarize this for Language Log readers, in case you didn't get that. There was a systems slowdown, you see, and the explanation turns out to be that while system capacity was being expanded a systems slowdown occurred, with the result that people found (indeed, you yourself may have found) that the systems slowed down. So that's the news from the Department of Redundancy Department at Charles Schwab. It makes you wonder about the people who draft letters for chief operating officers, doesn't it?

Seriously, there really is a linguistic incoherence here, and to at least some extent I can point out to you where it lies. The phrase our systems slowdown in the first paragraph is a definite singular noun phrase, so it is being presupposed that there is a unique and identifiable systems slowdown that you already know about. But a systems slowdown occurred, in the second paragraph, has an indefinite noun phrase as subject, appropriate only under the assumption that no identifiable systems slowdown has been present in the discourse so far. So while expecting an explanation, we progress backwards in our information state, from being presupposed to be aware of the systems slowdown to being presupposed not to have known about it. Not ungrammatical; just utterly incompetent at the level of discourse design and paragraph content.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 21, 2007 11:43 AM