Language of spam

Introduction

If you’ve got an email account, inevitably you’ll have received spam. Whether it’s adverts for vicodine or Viagra, single Russian women looking for fun (and your sort code), appeals for money from the daughters of deposed Nigerian generals, or requests to update your details from a bank that you don’t have an account with, spam is all around us.

In this mini-project, we’ll look at some emails and carry out a grammatical analysis to identify which ones are genuine and which ones are spam. By the end, not only will you have better knowledge, but you might even find yourself thousands of pounds richer than if you had unsuspectingly clicked on a link to empty your bank account.

Let’s take an example to begin with:

Please permit me to write you for the fact we have no met before. I got your contact from one of our search engines online hence I decided to write you. I would be very interested in offering you a part-time paying job in which you could earn a lot

This Organization is founded to increase employment among the honest, trustworthy and intelligent individuals living in UK and USA to handle some elementary paper work and payroll administration to our clients in UK and USA. Your Obligation is to work for 2hours a day and also listen attentively to given instructions.

Your Job is to take care of all applications with regards to new clients that are willing to register& invest their company in Europe yours is to be filling all documentations from these individual companies which will be sent to you under the companies name.

Salary Terms: 100 pounds/ $150 for each transaction,(each time you render service for the job) Get back to us asap via email address below if you are interested in the employment offer.

A quick look at the first sentence reveals three grammatical problems:

  • Please permit me to write you for the fact we have no met before.

See if you can spot them before we discuss them below.

The first problem concerns the use of to write you. In standard English grammar, it’s perfectly normal to write a letter or to write a message, and in each case the thing being written is what is called the Direct Object of the verb write. In the sentence I wrote you a letter, the letter is the Direct Object of the verb and you is what is called the Indirect Object. The verb has two Objects (and it’s sometimes called a ditransitive verb), but if you rearrange the sentence, you can’t really say (in British English at least: American English is different) I wrote you or I wrote a letter you.

Think also of the verb sing: it’s normal to sing a song, to sing a chorus or to sing a Christmas carol, but it doesn’t sound right to have a sentence that just says I sang you. We could have I sang to you, just as in the spam example we might expect to see Please permit me to write to you.

A second grammatical problem with the first sentence is in the expression for the fact…, which isn’t used in this way in standard English. (We can have expressions such as except for the fact… or This may be responsible for the fact that…, but these are different uses.)

Instead, we might have expected to find a different kind of prepositional phrase here such as due to the fact… . In fact, do we even need a prepositional phrase here? We might actually say as instead (as we have not met before).

A third, simple issue is that the writer of this spam email uses the adverb (or negator) no instead of not in the expression we have no met before.

Along with the grammatical problems in this spam email, there are also some obvious punctuation and capitalisation issues:

  • the lack of a full stop at the end of the first paragraph
  • the capitalisation of job, obligation and organization
  • the use of the $ symbol before the amount, but the absence of a £ sign

These points all suggest that this is not an official email from a reputable company.

Project

Now it’s over to you. Use the examples of spam emails we have provided to carry out your own analysis (they are attached as documents at the bottom of this page).

  • The first task is to identify features that you think are clues in three of the messages. What spelling and punctuation clues do you get from the data, and what kinds of grammatical problems can you see? Make a note of them and try to identify the types of issue they involve. How might you classify the error?
  • The second task is to draw up your own checklist of the typical errors made in these messages, so you can put together a tip sheet for other email users, warning them what to look out for. Are there particular patterns which you think are common to spam messages?

Extension project

This task is more open-ended and requires you to collect your own data:

  • Gather together a range of spam emails for yourself.
  • Note down the grammatical and other clues that you notice.
  • See if you can identify patterns in the clues you have noted.

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