John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The uses of subliteracy

I do carry on some about the defects of people’s education in writing. But I have support, as in this week’s New Yorker profile of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

Duncan often says “screwed” or “lied to” when he describes what American students face—low standards, chronically underperforming schools, inequities in spending and opportunity. He also repeats the claim, sometimes several times a day, that American schooling is stuck in old ruts while that of other nations has improved.

Amen, Brother Duncan.

But all the same, subliterate writing has its uses, as I was reminded by this message that came to my Gmail account this afternoon, purportedly from “Google Team”:

Gmail is built on the idea that email can be intuitive, efficient, and useful. And maybe even fun.

Now we are experience congestion and a very slow red, so we need you to verify your account by clicking the reply button and send your account domain below.
Google Team will be eliminating all unused/unwanted account causing red Congestion. Gmail is sorry for any inconveniency for all our regular Users. Send us your Domain Login below for verification.

Even without the fishy demand for account information — Google certainly knows what accounts are in Gmail — you would have to be thick as a plank not to recognize from the substandard English of the second and third paragraphs that this message is a fraud.

Tell me that it’s “just spelling.” Hmpf.


  1. Obviously generated from a non English speaking source as well. My sentences often have this same quality or lack of it when I am writing in Spanish.

  2. Just for the record, in Spanish, 'red' means 'network'. I'm guessing it's a machine tranlation.

  3. John, this isn't a great example for your anti-Just Spelling cause. Read it aloud: When you hit "now we are experience congestion" you know it's not fluent English. And I don't see any misspellings but "conveniency" and the 19th-century capitalizations.

  4. To clarify, for commenters who haven't followed the debate: "It's just spelling" means "Please distinguish between spelling errors (it's/its, then for than) and errors of word usage when lamenting the decline of English." It does not mean "spelling doesn't matter." (My spelling once won me two round-trip plane tickets to London; those were the days.)

  5. I love reading your blog. Informative, sarcastic, humorous. An enjoyable Elements of Style.

  6. I know, Jan, I know, and I agree. I don't side with the peevers who can't distinguish between minor lapses and major errors.

    At the same time, I want to be careful about "just spelling," which is the sort of excuse I've heard for ignoring the mechanics of writing so long as You Get Your Point Across.

  7. Yes, John, I know that you know. It was the "Hmpf" that set me off: Please don't feed the crazies. (And I have to change browsers to comment here, so you know I Really Care!)

  8. Yeah, but it could backfire, since it could be legitimate.
    Case in point: my university sent everyone an email, warning us that we can identify such spam by 'telltale signs' such as grammatical errors. I found no fewer than five mistakes in a single paragraph:
    "First, There are numerous typos and grammatical errors in this message. [name deleted] University and any other professional organization would present a well written professional request Most importantly no one from [name deleted] University will ever ask users to disclose identifying information such as email addresses and passwords for any reason. As a general rule no professional ITS organization will ever ask a user for name and password information..."