From the NYT on March 23, Adam Liptak’s “Worker Complaints Need Not Be Written to Earn Protection, Supreme Court Says”, which begins:

Workers who complain to their employers about wage regulations are protected from retaliation whether the complaints are oral or written, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a 6-to-2 decision.

The question in the case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, was whether the phrase “filed any complaint” in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 applied only to written complaints.

So the case turned primarily on what constitutes filing, not on what constitutes complaining, since in the case at hand the employee had complained to a shift supervisor and, through its grievance procedure, to his employer — but his complaint was oral rather than written.

In other settings, what counts as complaining might well be at issue.

From the NYT story:

But Justice Breyer stopped short of saying that any oral complaint would do.

“A complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute [the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938] and a call for their protection,” he wrote.

Justice Breyer’s decision is framed very narrowly, as about complaints with respect to a particular law, and it is of course about what constitutes a filing and what constitutes a complaint in the law. What constitutes a complaint in ordinary language is another matter; as OED2 has it, in ordinary language, to complain is

intr. To give expression to feelings of illusage, dissatisfaction, or discontent; to murmur, grumble. [cites from 1393 on]

[Punctuational digression: The solidified spelling illusage looks decidedly odd, and in fact OED2 doesn’t otherwise countenance it, giving only the separated spelling ill used and the hyphenated spelling ill-used, with the note: “Properly two words like harsh usageworse usage, but commonly hyphened under the influence of ill-used”.]

But then there is a specialized usage that moves us into the domain of more technical language (especially legal language):

intr. … spec. To make a formal statement of a grievance to or before a competent authority; to lodge a complaint, bring a charge. [cites from c1449 on]

Now consider situations of complaining in ordinary life. People complain — express dissatisfaction — about any number of things to other people in speaking and writing, including in on-line reviews of products and services and in phone calls to providers. They even respond to survey questions (on the telephone, on printed forms, on websites soliciting opinions) about their satisfaction with products and services, sometimes expressing negative judgments. They would then say they have complained, and in the case of aggrieved phone calls to a provider or survey responses solicited by a provider, they would say that they have complained to the provider.

But, alas, that might not be the provider’s view. You can tell someone on the phone or on a survey that the widget you bought from them didn’t work as advertised, wasn’t the model you ordered, caught on fire spontaneously, or whatever, and then if the same thing happens to you or someone you know later and the aggrieved customer informs the company about it, the customer might well be told that that’s unfortunate, and they’ll make it right (if you have evidence), though the company hasn’t had any complaints about this widget.

You believe of course that that’s not so, because you’ve complained (in the ordinary-language sense). Sometimes the company’s representative will just say that they have no record of that, but occasionally they’ll ask if you filed a complaint (that is, complained in the technical-language sense). And you discover that you would have had to say some formula like “I want to register a complaint” for your expression of dissatisfaction or grievance to count as a complaint — or, worse, that you would have had to ask for a complaint form, fill it out, and submit it. (Some companies might even insist on a form submitted in writing, not on-line, though I have no personal evidence of that.)

All this shifting to technical, quasi-legal, uses of complain and complaint serves the company’s purposes, of course, since it substantially reduces the company’s complaint rate (for publicity purposes and possibly others).


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