Oops, shouldn't have sent that letter!

Letter writing can be a risky business. Here are three examples:

(1) Many years ago, my mother received a letter from the hostess of a dinner party she had been invited to. In the letter, the hostess described the other dinner guests, particularly the person Mother would be sitting next to.

Such information is always welcome. It saves a lot of conversational chitchat as you try, in a brief period of time, to learn about the interests and life of your dinner companion.

The problem was that the hostess placed the wrong letter in the envelope. Thus, when opening the letter addressed to her, Mother read, "Dear John, you will be sitting next to Vera Dean, a brilliant writer on foreign affairs who has decidedly left-wing views. Don't be shocked."

Mother did not appreciate this description. Having a good sense of humor, though, she imagined that the letter John received read something like this: "Dear Vera, your dinner companion is John _____, a Wall Street lawyer. Alas, he is dull, dull, dull! Try as best you can to liven him up and engage him in conversation."

(2) A friend of mine, striving for efficiency, would write his "bread and butter" thank-you letter before arriving at his host's country place for a weekend visit. In these letters, the avoidance of detail was critical, with no reference, for example, to "the glorious late afternoons when the golden rays of the sun embraced the beautiful views surrounding your country house," since it might rain cats and dogs for the entire weekend.

His letters were filled with safe, commonplace generalities: "How nice to have been with you. Mealtimes were a pleasure. To see grass, flowers, trees – what a delight for a city dweller like me."

On one occasion, my friend was found out. The hostess came upon his letter on a table early in the visit. He was not invited back.

(3) While I was at college, I wrote a letter to the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, asking him to participate in a Harvard College charitable event.

I thought I would show off my Latin scholarship – I was studying Cicero and Catullus at the time – by concluding the letter, "and, of course, Mr. Bernstein, we would expect you to perform on a nongratis basis." (Gratis means "free" in Latin. A mischievous gremlin must have slipped the prefix "non" into my letter, since I, of course, would never make such a mistake.)

Fortunately, Mr. Bernstein did not respond. Had he appeared, his professional fee would have financially sunk our modest event.

Once again I turn to Latin, this time, I hope, with more success.

Caveat scriptor: Let the writer beware!

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