Be Careful About Careless Writing

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Just the other day, I received an email from my dear friend Mary Fox, who begged me for assistance from afar.

The warning lights came on one by one. In the first paragraph, she apologized for not letting me know about her “journey to Scotland . . . because it was a short notice from my business associate.” She went on to explain, “I have lost my wallet and other significant Document.” Then she wrote, “I will be glad if you can render some help in other to settle the outstanding debt of the hotel and other miscellaneous expenses. Please send the money to the following details of mine.”

Mark, you ask me, how could you befriend anyone who is such an atrocious and affected writer?

The answer: I can’t. My introductory paragraph was spurious. I don’t know anybody named Mary Fox.

You’ve probably received a scam letter like this before, perhaps purportedly from someone you actually know. Many people have. And some of them, Lord knows how, fall for it.

I blame the publishing establishment. (Stay with me here.) How is it that people can succumb to this pathetic con? Don’t they notice the stilted language — obviously not the prose of someone raised speaking and writing English? Do they excuse it by reasoning that Ms. Fox wrote so awfully because she’s emotionally distraught?

The problem is, we’re inured to poor writing. We see it all the time — online, of course, but also in newspapers and magazines, even in books. The prose of writers with only a tenuous grasp of the basics of English composition is often published with little or no professional mediation, and so we get used to it. And like lumpen proles seduced by propaganda, we can’t recognize a con job when it punches us in the face.

The day before dear Mary Fox implored me to come to her assistance, I received, by email, a PDF of a letter that began, “Congratulations to you as we bring to your notice, the results of the First Category draws of E-MAIL LOTTERY organized by the Canadian Government in conjunction with South Africa government (SA).” Whoo!

I was told, “Please note that your lucky winning number falls within our Afro representative office in (South Africa) as indicated in your electronic play coupon.” Later references were made to “our Africa agent” and “our Africa Agent.” (I presume, from the previous quoted sentence, that this person is identifiable by their Afro.)

Anyone who fails to note the nearly illiterate writing and falls victim to this scam or similar ones deserves what they get (or, more appropriately, doesn’t deserve what they get taken away from them), but I’m serious when I say that lax standards in publishing contribute to a diminishment of critical-thinking skills among the public.

Misinformation and deception are of course often couched in elegant or at least competent language, but the publishing industry does us a disservice by abandoning its traditional role as a provider of exemplary literature and other prose. Many publications and publishers proudly uphold this role, but too many others sacrifice quality for expediency, and the world is a poorer place for it. (And some people are literally poorer for it.)

Oh, speaking of poor, don’t worry about poor Ms. Mary Fox: I’m sending her the money she requested, because I won the lottery!

Postscript: So that this post lives up to the DailyWritingTips.com mission, I offer these tips: When you receive a written message purporting to be from a friend or a valid institution, make sure the writing quality is appropriate for the source — and make no excuses. And, in turn, if you want to be respected, write respectably.

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13 thoughts on “Be Careful About Careless Writing”

  1. when you say that people who fall for the poorly written scams “deserve” loosing their money, u should remember that these emails are sent all over the world and most receivers are not native english speakers themselves. many with even less knowledge of english. still, idiots, sure. just wanted to point out.

  2. Back in college, about 20 years ago, a few con artists tried to trick me as I was walking home from classes on a late Thursday afternoon—the 2 for 1 deal—hold this money for this rich guy (an African Prince) and he will award you twofold. They showed me a wad of money that looked real. However, the con artists looked like they had been living on skid row. “I was thinking to myself, why don’t you guys use this money because you need it.”

    Of course, their plan backfired because I was too honest. I offered to hold the money for free. And when they asked me to take some money out of my ATM account (being a college student, I did not have much money), something just clicked in my mind—no. Yet, a few students, a this Bay Area , tree hugging university were tricked by this scam. People need to listen to their inner mind, they need to listen to that “no.”

  3. I lost track of how many times I received an email like this! And you are absolutely right, it is so obvious that the person who wrote it has no knowledge whatsoever of the English language. But right now, all I can say I am super self-conscious of my non-native knowledge of English … Thank you for all your tips on writing.

  4. Michael:

    I didn’t make the connection before, but of course these types of scam predate the Web — I recall, in particular, the opening scene from The Sting, in which a con very similar to the one you mention is carried off. Plus la change . . .

  5. Jenni:

    Good point, and I actually do not wish any such misfortune on anyone. But it’s a real head-shaker when I hear about a well-educated American falling for this, or the Nigerian scam. I guess BS filters are incorrectly installed sometimes.

  6. Good post. I get spam from India all the time. Try as I might, I cannot stem the flow. They are a clever lot over there. I got one the other day which started with the line: I hope this message finds you in the pink of health. I’ve never heard this phrase before. I don’t think it exists, but it tickled my fancy nonetheless.

  7. Thank you so much for lending your voice to this cause. It is so frustrating to pick up something to read and find misspellings, missing words, etc. in all types of publications.

  8. Thanks for the warning (to avoid scams and to write well). I will point out an egregious (if all too common error) in your own prose:

    “I presume, from the previous quoted sentence, that this person is identifiable by their Afro.”

    This person (singular) should not be identified by their (plural) Afro. Doctor heal thyself.

  9. Karl:

    Using their as a singular pronoun in lieu of dealing with the awkwardness of the “his or her” construction is acceptable. It may not seem like an elegant solution, but later generations will wonder what the fuss was all about.

    I still employ “his and her,” or omit a pronoun altogether, or change the sentence construction to plural, in formal writing, but I have no hesitation in using it here.

  10. To quote W. C. Fields, “Suckers have no business having money anyway.”

    Like you, Mark, I’ve received many spams that were very poorly worded and have been dismayed that anyone would be tricked by such gaffe-laden messages. Then I stop and consider the abundant evidence that our culture delights in wallowing in shallowness, fluff, and the kind of mindless hubbub that is more concerned with who’s winning American Idol than who’s running for President and I stop being dismayed.

    I’ve seen sensible, intelligent people degenerate into near-babbling idiocy in their written communications and excuse their incoherence by saying ‘oh, you knew what I meant,’ or because e-mail isn’t somewhere where one must bother with grammar, or some other reason, and I watch as the mental state of our species descends yet another rung on the ladder of intellect.

    It is imperative that we, as writers (both published and fledgeling) remember that our words are our representation to the world. If we put our thoughts out in the equivalent of shabby, threadbare, soiled clothing we will be looked down on as unprofessional hacks and ignored, our message lost as unimportant and disposable. But if we polish our work and make it the best it can be for the intended purpose we will be perceived as talented and adroit and intelligent, worthy of earning our readers attention and dollars.

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