Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Spam: A Lexical and Pragmatic Guide

Spam (the kind that lands in your inbox, not your stomach) has become so ubiquitous in modern life that we can often let it fly under the radar of our awareness, like we do with traffic noise or billboard advertising as we drive through life. This is greatly aided by the spam filters that nearly all email providers use, with varying success, to divert spam to a separate folder, where we can delete it en masse from time to time, often without viewing the content. As sophisticated as modern spam filters are, there are still mistakes, both false positives (incorrectly rejecting legitimate email) and false negatives (failure to identify spam and treating it as an ordinary email message).

When I open an email that a spam filter has misdirected I'm rarely in doubt about whether it is or isn't spam, and the basis of my certainty is nearly always linguistic. Is this my training, or does everyone examine the evidence in this way? I would be interested to know. For me, the reasons that spam fails so colossally to convince can be divided into two convenient categories of linguistic analysis: lexical (having to do with word choice) and pragmatic (involving the analysis of the situational context in which language is used). Let's look at the pragmatics first, because it's the easier.

If you think about the notion of surprise ("the astonishment you feel when something totally unexpected happens to you"), a distinguishing feature is the "totally unexpected" part. While surprise can be a feature of everyday experience, an experience or phenomenon that consisted entirely of surprises would be rare, and would contradict the idea of surprise—because most things that happen are by their nature not "totally unexpected". In this light, an email message from an unknown sender whose headline is, to say the least, surprising, gets our attention: not because we believe it, but because we are inclined to doubt its authenticity. Like this one, for example, which showed up at one of my addresses in mid-December:

This company is a rare opportunity to quintuple your money before Christmas.

A statement such as this, even if it fell from the lips of a trusted friend, would require considerable exegesis and defense before we lent it credence; yet the anonymous spammer would have us believe it at face value. Multiply this by whatever number of spammy messages you receive in a day, and you have the essence of spam: it is, literally, incredible. Here's a snapshot of the inbox of an address I use exclusively as a repository of spam.

Imagine! So many things being possible in just one day! But of course we can't imagine, because they're not.

Emails that do not stretch the limits of belief or likelihood in a pragmatic analysis but still do not pass the smell test fail, to my mind, because of linguistic pratfalls. This suggests to me that spammers are very often either non-native speakers (because of their many mistakes) or not very well educated ones, and this accords well with anecdotal reports of a great deal of spam originating from servers outside the US or the UK.

Here's an example: we have all by now probably received multiple emails that at first glance seem to be from folks we know. A recent email purporting to be from my brother contains only the line "you would appreciate this", followed by a dodgy looking link. Dodgy looking link aside, would my brother begin a sentence with a lower-case letter? I think not. So surely, this one is spam.

Another email I received recently has the subject line "Are Your Kids Safe"— surely a concern to every modern parent. Inside, every pixel of the email is clickable, including, at the bottom of it, this text:

Kids Live Safe is not a Government Agency or in anyway associated with the Government.

Aside from gratuitous capitalization, which you hope would not escape the notice of an editor, there is the incorrect use of anyway, which should be spelled as two words here—another thing that you hope a paid copy editor would pick up on.

My university email address gets a lot of emails alerting me to various conferences, calls for papers, and journals. Nearly anyone who teaches at a university has a publicly available email address so really we're all sitting ducks for this, and the spammers certainly take advantage, in the rather bumbling way that is their hallmark. Here's a screenshot clip from an email that I (and 14 other selected University of Colorado faculty) received recently:

Some of the recipients of this email may in fact be engineers but I am not, so there is a pragmatic question of suitability here: at the very least the email is a violation of the Gricean maxim of relevance. But if I were an engineer, I would be unlikely to submit my work to a journal that might be as poorly written and edited as this email message is. Curiously, the format and content of this email are remarkably similar to others I have received, for other journals, like the International Journal of Business and Management Invention and the IOSR Journal of VLSI and Signal Processing. It would seem that the spammers have a poorly written boilerplate into which they can insert the names of various faux journals they publish.

The spam messages that come closest to drawing me in are those that appear to be from organizations I have a relationship with—banks, charities, retail outlets and the like—and that therefore have an initial claim to legitimacy in my inbox. But even here, cursory examination typically reveals that the spammers have not done their homework, and their tell-tale lack of competency in English has given them away. Sentences like these, for example:
  • This is part of our security process and helps ensure that continue to be safer way to buy online.
  • For your accommodation, your informational message may be viewed in the account documentation desk.
that are either downright ungrammatical (the first) or bizarrely stilted (the second) clue you up pretty quickly the they did not come from the reputable organizations that they are spoofing.

It is surely the very low barrier to entry that keeps spammers trying, and this low barrier means that even a very tiny success rate makes the enterprise worth their while. But I wonder if they might be vastly more successful if they would allocate a small part of their budget for a native-speaker copy editor. I also wonder whether non-native speakers of English are unusually vulnerable to spam because of a reduced  ability to spot rather bad English.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 1st 2017, 3:34 AM
Comment by: Robert B. (Norwich United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
article of extremely Enjoyability!

Boyd Bayle
Wednesday February 1st 2017, 4:48 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Geneva, IL)
Smashing article!!!
Wednesday February 1st 2017, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
spot on!
Wednesday February 1st 2017, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Excellent! Thank you.
Thursday February 2nd 2017, 3:26 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
I automatically delete any spam message whether it appears genuine or not.
Thursday February 2nd 2017, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
I automatically delete all spam messages whether they appear genuine or not.
Monday February 13th 2017, 7:04 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Great analysis--I find my copy editing and proofreading emotions light up in exactly the same way for spam as for typos, errors and solecisms.

Do you think their margins would allow them to hire a native English copy editor? And what desperate or wicked copy editor would take up such a job? Would make a good short story--maybe Twilight Zone.
Monday February 13th 2017, 7:04 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Gabrielle--how do you know they are spam if they appear genuine?

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