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.