I’m tired of filling out forms

Ever try to answer those tricky questions? Bob’s sure that somewhere there’s a little man who stays awake nights composing them . . . and trying to drive us all mad

Robert Thomas Allen March 31 1956

I’m tired of filling out forms

Ever try to answer those tricky questions? Bob’s sure that somewhere there’s a little man who stays awake nights composing them . . . and trying to drive us all mad

Robert Thomas Allen March 31 1956

I’m tired of filling out forms

Ever try to answer those tricky questions? Bob’s sure that somewhere there’s a little man who stays awake nights composing them . . . and trying to drive us all mad

Robert Thomas Allen

DO HEREBY CERTIFY THAT

MORE AND MORE OFTEN, as civilization progresses and gets more tangled, I find myself printing my name clearly in block letters at the top of some form or other, my feet curled under the table and my tongue between my teeth, then trying to figure out where I go from there. It’s hard to imagine anything more agonizing, either to me or the people who have to read my answers, than when I’m faced with a form.

A little while ago I applied for a complicated type of sickness and income insurance for people in journalism or advertising. I found myself in the familiar situation of peering between two vases of fresh-cut flowers at a girl who had handed me a blue form and motioned with the rubber end of her pencil toward a bench. And there I sat, trying to answer questions like, “Do you have any means of support now and/or do you have children? Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and please print plainly,” and feeling my mind coming apart. An hour later I sat before a middleaged business woman with a cold who checked my application.

“We’re a bit careless this morning, aren’t we?” she said, dabbing her nose daintily with Kleenex and transferring all the questions I’d answered on one page to another page.

She worked her way through the whole form, ending with, “We mustn’t leave out the name of our city, must we, or we wouldn’t know where to send you the money if you got sick,” smiling wetly and looking at me as if wondering what had happened.

What had happened was that I’d come across a column headed “Advertising,” under which was listed a number of occupations. I was to check any I’d ever worked at. I checked “Write copy.” Then I’d turned to the next column, which was headed “Writing copy,” under which somebody with a mind like a leaky fountain pen had listed “Advertising.” I’d passed the whole thing up, and started to fill out the section where I was to list all jobs I’d ever held, starting with the last, stating when I’d left and why and using more space if necessary. I was writing my way up one of the vases of flowers, when I gave up and just spent the rest of the time while I waited to be called imagining that there is a little guy somewhere who makes up forms.

I imagine his name is Harriston, and he has an office down a flight of stairs which you enter by squeezing behind an old bureau, and I’m interviewing him. Harriston takes me around his little printing plant, brushing through cobwebs and pointing out some of his more memorable jobs.

“There’s one of my earliest phrases,” he says, pointing to an old CNR express form. “It’s a simple thing, but effective. ‘State if shipment is household goods or cans,’ ” he reads. “The reader can’t quite settle down to it. I mean, if it were cans of peas, for instance, it would be household goods. But, if it were cans of diesel oil, it would have to go under some other classification. And I haven’t provided any. A question like that tends to pull the human brain in different directions.”

He tells me that he often wakes up in the middle of the night and jots down phrases on a pad he keeps on his night table. “Here’s one I thought up just the other night. ‘Are you under age 21 or employed in a city over 35,000?’ The trick here is that people under age 21 and employed in a city of 35,000 but not over it, start looking for another line to fill out. But I just leave them there.”

Harriston says he has always had an ambition to go to the United States, where many modern tendencies, including confusion, have reached their culmination.

“Here’s something from their form 1040 that I did last year,” he says. “It’s from the simplified, or short form, of their income tax. ‘State whether neither 65 nor blind, or either 65 or blind, but not married to someone making less than a $100 a year,’ ” he reads. “Try that one in a hurry!”

“The trick in wording forms is not exactly to make a question too tough. Make it so they understand all the words but not what you mean. ‘Break their spines with onesyllable words’ is our motto. A sentence should be worded so that the reader doesn’t quite know where to catch hold of it. “A form question has to be slippery, it has to move, it has to be the same at both ends as it is in the middle. Take this one from an Ontario mortgage form. ‘State rate (%) or your age (yéars).’ You’ll note the double twister given by the use of brackets. When you put brackets in a pirrase, the reader doesn’t know whether what’s in between them qualifies what precedes them, or what the reader should put in them.”

Harriston explains that there is the dangling question or what he calls the Up The Garden Path form of phraseology. As an example, he shows a beautifully framed piece of work which he is going to try to sell to the Canadian Department of National Revenue. “Enter amount from line 14, column A, above, unless you are (a) over 25 but not married, (b) did not spend over $500 in tips and gratuities in 1955, (c) if your taxable year ends after July 31 but you have not excluded from your income dividends received from domestic corporations, schedule J (but note, this exclusion does not apply to (1) the China Trade, or (2) the so-called exempt organizations or farmers’ co-operatives).”

“I got everything in there but whether they were blind or over sixty-five,” Harriston chuckles. “Slap the average wage earner with that after a hard day at the office and you plant the seeds of schizophrenia.”

I ask Harriston what he thinks of the future of his profession, and he says there is every sign that within ten years he’ll have things so complicated that the average person would rather go to Mexico than apply for a phone. ★