The 1916 U.S. Civil Service "report writing" test

« previous post | next post »

The U.S. Civil Service Commission's Manual of Examinations for the Spring of 1916 contains on pp. 44-45 an example of an exercise in "report writing". The task is described as a "Test in writing in letter form, not more than 200 words in length, an orderly, concise, and grammatical statement of the essential facts included in a given statement of 400 or 500 words". The specific instructions read:

Condense the printed exercise into not more than 200 words, retaining all the facts. No effort should be made to follow the language of the text. In rating this exercise the arrangement, completeness, exactness, and conciseness of the statement, its adherence to the subject matter, its style, and freedom from errors in grammar, etc., will be considered.

The "printed exercise" in question is this:

The element which cost perhaps more than any other element in the world and it is also the rarest is radium and it is characterized by the ability to send out very strong rays; which has much in common with the Roentgen or X-rays, and resembles them very much, though they aren't the X-rays. The ones that first discovered radium was Professor and Mme. Curie of Paris; and we obtain radium now chiefly from pitchblende which is a uranium ore and they find it mostly in the Hartz Mountains. No one hasn't yet succeeded in separating the element radium by itself, but they sell it in the form of some one of its salts, generally the chlorid; and of this not only a few ounces is believed to be in existence. Radium has the same effect on bodily tissues like X-rays and they have made many attempts to employ it to cure organic diseases, but they, haven't had a great degree of success in it yet but they have had some success. It now looks like they will limit its usefulness to cauterizing or burning; for there is lots of cases where the ordinary methods of cauterizing fails because they can't get to the diseased parts and the radium rays can, as in the case of inaccessible tumors or cancers which are very difficult to get to; and which the radium rays has been quite effective to remove them." Radium rays, however, like in the case of the X-rays, sometimes causes severe and practically incurable ulcers if the application of these rays are kept up too long, and the ulcers formed in this way are very difficult to cure. This was first discovered by an experimenter who carried a tiny vial of the salts of radium around in his pocket very careless and it caused ulcers on his body; from which we should be very careful in the use of it; and they now keep it in bottles of lead because the rays from the radium can't pass through them. It has been said that if they could isolate a pound of radium and place it in a room that no human being or animal couldn't remain in that room and live; which shows that the rays must be very strong. But perhaps there isn't so great a supply of radium in the world as this, or if there is, no one hasn't discovered it yet. The question of the possible distribution of radium throughout the earth's crust and perhaps it also exists in the sun and the stars have caused some interesting speculations by scientists concerning it.

This version of a "report writing" test is oddly similar to the task of a writing instructor.  I suppose that it's a sort of free-range version of current SAT questions like the following:

But the 1916 "report writing" test is not only larger-scale and open-ended, it combines an explicit instruction to "condense" with an entirely implicit requirement to correct stylistic and grammatical infelicities.  I could find no indication in the 1916 Manual that the "printed exercise" is in need of such correction.

According to the 1916 Manual, the "report writing" test is required for these positions:

Bookkeeper (men only), Departmental Service.
Bookkeeper, Philippine Service.
Cadet engineer, Lighthouse Service.
Cadet officer, Lighthouse Service.
Clerk, Departmental Service.
Draftsman, clerk, Land-Office Service.
Fish culturist, Bureau of Fisheries.
Forest and field clerk.
Chinese and immigrant inspector, Immigration Service.
Laboratory apprentice, Bureau of Standards.
Land law clerk, Departmental Service.
Law clerk, Departmental Service.
Law clerk-stenographer-typewriter.
Postal clerk, Panama Canal Service.
Scientific assistant, Department of Agriculture.
Telegraph operator, Departmental Service.
Typewriter (male and female), Departmental Service.

It would be interesting to trace the history of U.S. Civil-Service "report writing" and other English-language tests, from the establishment of the Civil Service in 1872 to the present day. How did the tests evolve over time? Which jobs required what level of performance?

Competitors for the "Immigrant inspector" positions

… may also be examined in […] Interpreting one or more of the following languages: Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian (Arabic), Bohemian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Dalmatian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew jargon (Yiddish), Herzegovinian, Hindu, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Montenegrin, Magyar, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Roumanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Servian, Slovak, Slovenian (Wendish), Slovenish (Kranish), Spanish, Swedish, Syrian, Syrian (Arabic), Turkish, Yiddish (Hebrew jargon).

The testing procedure for language proficiency was an oddly permeable one:

Applicants who desire to qualify in one or more of these languages will, upon notice to that effect, be furnished a copy of Form 1141, and the languages selected must be specifically named in answer to Question 1 of Form 1141 or Form 1312. No educational test in the languages will be given, but the rating in the language will be based upon the statements of the persons whose names and addresses the applicant furnishes on Form 1141, who can read and speak the language concerning which they vouch. At least two, but not more than three, names of persons must be furnished by the applicant for each language in which he desires to qualify. The same person may vouch for as many different languages as he is able to read and speak. No credit will be given for any language in which a rating of less than 70 per cent is received.

Competitors for the "Immigrant inspector" job must pass an examination on "Practical Questions In The Immigration And Chinese-exclusion Laws And Regulations".

The position is referred to as "Chinese and immigrant inspector" because

The history of the "Chinese inspector" position looks like an interesting one, e.g. this letter from "H. H. Schell, Chinese Inspector", United States Congressional Serial Set, 1890:

The frequent movement of small parties of Chinese in Sonora toward the border, both by rail and overland, and their non-appearance at Nogales or vicinity, leads to the conclusion that entry is being made at points east and west of that town.

For a long distance east of Yuma, Ariz., the country is an uninhabited desert; absence of water, obscure trails, and great distance to be traveled overland preclude any extensive entry in that neighborhood.

From Presidio, Tex., to Yuma, Ariz., the eastern and western limits of your district is 960 miles. With a force of eight mounted customs inspectors and one mounted Chinese inspector, any practical enforcement of the exclusion act seems improbable, especially so when no penalty attaches on violation of the law.

Personal conversation with English speaking Chinese in Sonora brought out the fact that the persons talked with intended to return to San Francisco at an early day, but any information as to the route to be used was closely concealed. None, however, seemed to entertain doubts of their ability to make the trip a success.

It is my opinion that a mounted Chinese inspector should be assigned to duty at Nogales, Ariz., and that the necessity of such assignment seems urgent.

The mounted inspectors are vigilant, active, and practical men, but their duties as customs officers occupy all their time, and enforcement of the exclusion act is naturally looked upon as a side issue, hence the necessity of the presence of an inspector whose special duty lies in this direction.

Although I certainly knew about the Chinese Exclusion Act, I was not previously aware that "mounted Chinese inspectors" patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1890s.


  1. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    Mae Ngai's book The Lucky Ones explains that illegal entry of Chinese migrants into the U.S. shifted from the Canadian border to the Mexican because of Canadian steamship and railroad companies' increased cooperation with U.S. immigration officials; by 1904, there were 80 mounted officers patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border for Chinese immigrants. Some Chinese entered in full view of immigration officials, "wearing Mexican-style clothes and mumbling a few words in Spanish . . . . immigration officials believed that it was quite difficult to distinguish Chinese from Mexicans."

  2. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    The "writing in letter form, not more than 200 words" of a longer passage reminds me of the precis we were obliged to do in school English classes back in England in the early 60s.
    The purpose was, of course, to assess comprehension.

    [(myl) I've taken quite a few such tests myself, and seen more of them administered in other areas. But this is the first one I've ever seen where the longer passage was such a dog's breakfast, so that there's a kind of implicit stylistic and grammatical correction involved as well.]

  3. Mr Punch said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    I wonder if "H. H. Schell, Chinese Inspector" (1890) was related to the China expert Orville Schell, born 50 years later.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    It's interesting to note in the list of languages that the language and/or dialect continuum formerly known as Serbo-Croatian was split into 4 or 5 (depending on what is meant by "Dalmatian") distinct nationalistic pieces, just as it is again today, the intervening project of a united Jugo-Slavia having proven evanescent. The Slovenian/Slovenish distinction is a new one on me, but maybe "(Wendish)" means the former is what is now more usually called Sorbian, with "(Karnish)" for the latter somehow deriving from Carniola?

  5. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    I'm interested in the characterization of Yiddish as "Hebrew jargon". Was the idea that Yiddish was some sort of pidgin, or that it was (using a definition in the 5th ed. Webster's Collegiate near my desk) "barbarous or outlandish"?

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 6:15 pm has some discussion of Yiddish being pejoratively characterized as "jargon" by one faction within the Jewish community back in the Old Country in the late 19th century, although I don't know what (presumably Russian?) word used in those debates is being Englished as "jargon." Googling also turns up a debate in the N.Y. Times letters to the editor column in 1902 about whether Yiddish is a "jargon." COHA only has hits for "yiddish" starting in 1900, so perhaps the drafters of the list thought that some sort of explanation was needed?

  7. Nightstallion said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

    As an Austrian, I can shed light on Brewer's question:

    "Wendish" ([i]Windisch[/i] in German) was a label used by German-Austrian nationalists to claim that Slovene was actually a very strange dialect of German, in order to keep the Slovene-speaking territories of Styria and Carinthia in Austria after WWI.

    "Kranish" probably refers to the region of [i]Krain[/i], located squarely in Slovenia.

    I suppose those two are somehow aligned with the main dialects of Slovenian, but I know no Slovenian, so someone else will have to confirm or refute that.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

    Ah. See also for a somewhat similar issue arising in Hungarian politics of the post-WW1 period. Apparently, words that come out as "Wend" in English didn't just mean the Sorbians but represent a range of more generic Germanic terms for "people on our borders talking funny, but in a Slavic way so we can't call them Welsh/Walloons/Wallachians."

  9. Paul said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    Regarding the test sentence: Although to my internal ears the construction (a) is clumsy, surely the error is one of punctuation at (b).

    [(myl) Sorry, you lose:

    The explanation:

    If it's any comfort, 44,277 of 116,518 kids who took today's online test question also missed it.]

  10. David said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    Paul's point may be that the following is not ungrammatical: "It depends on where in the world it is located. An underground railway system may be called …." The needed corrections, however, come outside the "underlined part".

  11. Paul said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

    Indeed, I hoped for a colon. (A) is then grammatic (!) I spotted (B) was outside the underline but chose to think that might have been a function of US vs UK punctuation rules.

  12. Dakota said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 1:17 am

    I would be more interested in how such writing texts were scored and whether any type of standardization is possible when there are many people scoring them. I know this type of test is still used as a college entrance requirement.

  13. maidhc said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 2:32 am

    I have an account of the examination given by the Forest Service in 1911.

    Part of the examination was to perform a land surveying task. The candidates were purposely given an incorrect compass heading to start with. Successful candidates were expected to correct the error.

    It seems to me that many of these positions required the person to collect information from field informants and summarize it into a report to be sent back to headquarters. Such reports were often telegraphed, and junior officials were expected to keep costs down by sending short reports.

    During the construction of the Panama Canal, medical personnel were disciplined for wasting too much money on telegrams attempting to get resources for mosquito control, when it was a well-known fact (in Washington, at least) that yellow fever was caused by a lack of upstanding moral character.

  14. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 6:31 am

    @J.W. Brewer: Thanks for the pointer to the NY Times letters, which seem to answer my question: they address the issue (to quote one) "whether Yiddish is a jargon or a language." The argument made by some was that Yiddish is a mere corrupt (and unstable) mixture of discordant languages, not itself a recognized language governed by grammatical rules. The characterization goes back at least to 1895, when a NYT column characterized Yiddish as "a jargon of old German, Hebrew, Polish, and Russian, with the addition of Hungarian, where the Jews come from Hungary."

  15. Jim said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    The sentence error lies at (A). If you change it post (B) to make a second sentence or alter the post-(B) punctuation, then you've possibly not kept it as a single sentence (which could be deemed required) and you have no antecedent for the pronoun "it", making it (ahem) hard to process. Changing (A) solves both issues.

  16. Joseph said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 7:11 am

    This question is unfair. We have to imagine somebody in the process of writing the sentence and committing an error at some point. After this person has written "It depends on", no error has been committed so far. The error is in what was written afterwards. But I understand that the American educational system is full of rubbish and unfair questions like this one.

    A side point: replacing A with "Regardless of" would produce an equally correct sentence. We cannot be sure what the original sentence was supposed to mean because (allegedly) it is not a correct sentence of English.

  17. delurking said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

    I agree with Joseph; it's a rotten question. If you happen to be the sort of kid who can *think* of replacing "It depends on" with "Depending on" then you're good. But my first impulse, also, was to put a colon or semi-colon after (B), and if I was the age of the kids taking this test, I might easily get stuck there and not be able to think what else to do.

  18. Adrianne said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

    So, clearly, you're supposed to correct basic grammar in the sample passage, while also retaining all the facts… Assuming you know nothing of the subject matter, "No one hasn't yet succeeded in separating the element radium by itself" is not clearly a factual error caused by double negation… so you may end up assuming it's factually correct and you're to rewrite it. I can imagine people in good faith rewriting it as, "Everyone has succeeded in separating the element…" … and getting marked down.

RSS feed for comments on this post