THE PLUPERFECT VIRUS
Washington Post: Taking Liberties
The Pluperfect Virus
By Bob Hirschfeld
Sunday, May 2, 1999; Page B05
A new computer virus is spreading throughout the Internet, and it is far more insidious
than last week's Chernobyl menace. Named Strunkenwhite after the authors of a classic
guide to good writing, it returns e-mail messages that have grammatical or spelling
errors. It is deadly accurate in its detection abilities, unlike the dubious spell
checkers that come with word processing programs.
The virus is causing something akin to panic throughout corporate America, which has
become used to the typos, misspellings, missing words and mangled syntax so acceptable in
cyberspace. The CEO of LoseItAll.com, an Internet startup, said the virus has rendered him
helpless. "Each time I tried to send one particular e-mail this morning, I got back
this error message: 'Your dependent clause preceding your independent clause must be set
off by commas, but one must not precede the conjunction.' I threw my laptop across the
A top executive at a telecommunications and long-distance company, 10-10-10-10-10-10-123,
said: "This morning, the same damned e-mail kept coming back to me with a pesky
notation claiming I needed to use a pronoun's possessive case before a gerund. With the
number of e-mails I crank out each day, who has time for proper grammar? Whoever created
this virus should have their programming fingers broken."
A broker at Begg, Barow and Steel said he couldn't return to the "bad, old" days
when he had to send paper memos in proper English. He speculated that the hacker who
created Strunkenwhite was a "disgruntled English major who couldn't make it on a
trading floor. When you're buying and selling on margin, I don't think it's anybody's
business if I write that 'i meetinged through the morning, then cinched the deal on the
cel phone while bareling down the xway.' "
If Strunkenwhite makes e-mailing impossible, it could mean the end to a communication
revolution once hailed as a significant timesaver. A study of 1,254 office workers in
Leonia, N.J., found that e-mail increased employees' productivity by 1.8 hours a day
because they took less time to formulate their thoughts. (The same study also found that
they lost 2.2 hours of productivity because they were e-mailing so many jokes to their
spouses, parents and stockbrokers.)
Strunkenwhite is particularly difficult to detect because it doesn't come as an e-mail
attachment (which requires the recipient to open it before it becomes active). Instead, it
is disguised within the text of an e-mail entitled "Congratulations on your pay
raise." The message asks the recipient to "click here to find out about how your
raise effects your pension." The use of "effects" rather than the
grammatically correct "affects" appears to be an inside joke from
Strunkenwhite's mischievous creator.
The virus also has left government e-mail systems in disarray. Officials at the Office of
Management and Budget can no longer transmit electronic versions of federal regulations
because their highly technical language seems to run afoul of Strunkenwhite's dictum that
"vigorous writing is concise." The White House speechwriting office reported
that it had received the same message, along with a caution to avoid phrases such as
"the truth is. . ." and "in fact. . . ."
Home computer users also are reporting snafus, although an e-mailer who used the word
"snafu" said she had come to regret it.
The virus can have an even more devastating impact if it infects an entire network. A
cable news operation was forced to shut down its computer system for several hours when it
discovered that Strunkenwhite had somehow infiltrated its TelePrompTer software, delaying
newscasts and leaving news anchors nearly tongue-tied as they wrestled with proper
There is concern among law enforcement officials that Strunkenwhite is a harbinger of the
increasingly sophisticated methods hackers are using to exploit the vulnerability of
business's reliance on computers. "This is one of the most complex and invasive
examples of computer code we have ever encountered. We just can't imagine what kind of
devious mind would want to tamper with e-mails to create this burden on
communications," said an FBI agent who insisted on speaking via the telephone out of
concern that trying to e-mail his comments could leave him tied up for hours.
Meanwhile, bookstores and online booksellers reported a surge in orders for Strunk &
White's "The Elements of Style."
Bob Hirschfeld, who enjoys receiving e-mails in plain English, lampoons the news at his
Web site, bobsfridge.com.