Arrant Pedantry

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Completion Successful

The other day I added some funds to my student card and saw a familiar message: “Your Deposit Completed Successfully!” I’ve seen the similar message “Completion successful” on gas pumps after I finish pumping gas. These messages seem perfectly ordinary at first glance, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized how odd they are. Though they’re intended as concise messages to let me know that everything worked the way it was supposed to, I had to wonder what it meant for a completion to be successful.

The first question is, what is it that’s being completed? Obviously it must be the transaction. But rather than describing the transaction as successful or unsuccessful, it describes the act of completing the transaction as such. So is it possible to separate the notions of completion and success? In my mind, the fact that the transaction is complete means that it was successful, and vice versa. An incomplete transaction would be unsuccessful. After all, if the transaction were incomplete or unsuccessful, it certainly wouldn’t give me a message like “Completion unsuccessful” or, worse yet, “Incompletion successful”.

So saying that the completion is successful is really just another way of saying that the transaction is complete. But as a consumer, I don’t really care that the abstract act of completing the transaction is successful—I just care that the transaction is complete. The message takes what I care about (the completion), nominalizes it, and reports on the status of the nominalization instead.

What I can’t figure out is why the messages would frame the status of the transaction in such an odd way. Perhaps it’s a case of what Geoffrey Pullum calls nerdview, which is when experts frame public language in a way that makes sense to them but that seems odd or nonsensical to laypeople. Perhaps from the perspective of the company processing the credit card transaction, there’s a difference between the completeness of the transaction and its success. I don’t know—I don’t work at a bank, and I don’t care enough to research how credit card transactions are processed. I just want to put some money on my student card so I can buy some donuts from the vending machine.

10 Responses to Completion Successful

  1. Jan says:

    It means that language nerds and IT nerds are not communicating.

  2. Esther says:

    Congratulations on another column successfully completed!

  3. Erroll says:

    In my opinion, saying “completion successful” implies, to the lay person, that the process completed CORRECTLY. I used to be a computer programmer, and in my experience it is entirely possible for a process to complete successfully, (that is, to run to completion without aborting) but with errors. To say it another way, the program or process reaches its natural conclusion (called EOJ in programming, or “End Of Job”), but not yielding the desired or intended result. I would code the program to print out or display the message, “EOJ – Error 7”, or some such thing. For most people, “Transaction Completed” would be enough– It kind of implies “correctly” or “successfully”. Certainly if your bank deposit ended with the message “Transaction Completed With Errors”, you wouldn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy over it. But you’re right– If you rip it apart, “Completion Successful” is ambigious at best, even redundant. So it’s probably best NOT to rip it apart. If you backed me into a corner to come up with alternate phrase, I would say “Transaction Successful”, implying “Your Transaction Has Completed, With No Errors”. This removes any ambiguity of whether the transaction or the completion was successful. (Omigod, I better stop now…have we beat this to death yet??)

  4. Porter says:

    “Completion Successful” has the advantage of being completely generic, and is equally applicable in every (successful) situation.

  5. Jan: Exactly.

    Esther: Thanks!

    Erroll: I think this confirms that it’s a case of nerdview. The programmers are trying to say that it’s complete and without errors, but from the perspective of the consumer, these are the same thing. A transaction that is complete with errors or incomplete without errors are effectively the same from the consumer’s point of view.

    Porter: True, but I think “transaction successful” has the advantage of being a more relevant and meaningful message to the person seeing it.

  6. cd in canada says:

    Another way to look at it… from the users perspective there are two meaningful alternatives to the transaction acheiving a state of “Completion successful”:
    – “Not completed” due to a problem reading the card or network failure, for example… try it again
    – “Completed, you don’t have funds” … try another card… “Completion unsuccessful” in other words

  7. cd in canada says:

    er, “user’s perspective” I should say!

  8. Tricia aka pooka says:

    Ernest Shackleton’s transcontinental crossing of Antarctica was not completed, but is one of the great success stories.

    However, I’m pretty sure that isn’t what the credit card company is thinking of.

  9. Joe says:

    There is another way to parse “completed successfully”: “successfully” intensifies “completed”, giving the consumer a satisfied feeling about the transaction. Your recounting of this particular event as perfectly ordinary at first is evidence of this feeling. However, your further consideration of the phrase via nominalizations and their statuses is an example of what I call “GeoffreyView” where certain usages – while initially unexceptional – become problematic after deeper linguistic parsing. Much of his “nerdview” complaints are a lot like that.

    My take is that Mr. Pullum is a closet prescriptivist – since he cannot be a prescriptivist in the typical sense, he’s always on the lookout for goofy usages to whine about.

  10. Joe: I could get a satisfied feeling about the transaction from “transaction successful”—why not go with that? Isn’t it clearer and more explicit about what has happened and what I as the customer expect to have happened?

    When a prescriptivist suggests that a phrase is redundant, everyone happily goes along with it. When a linguist makes the same analysis but with semantic and syntactic support, you whine about it and call it closet prescriptivism. Consider this: there’s something I suggest you read this and this before you get all het about Geoffrey Pullum’s supposed prescriptivism.

    You obviously have a problem with Pullum. Why don’t you email him about it or comment on one of his posts instead of complaining here?

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