It is with regret…

Dear Correspondent

I regret to say that I have been unable to deliver your electronic mail to Mr Stafford. My employer has left with me strict instructions to run certain automated checks on the spelling, grammar and vulgarity of unsolicited messages, and I’m afraid it is due to the result of these checks that I am unable to deliver yours.

Mr Stafford has adopted this procedure after realising that many so called ‘spam’ messages contain basic errors of spelling, errors of punctuation and grammar or simple profanity. As you will know the basic problem of spam filtering is where to set the threshold so that no important messages are deleted, and so that few spam messages are delivered. Mr Stafford reasoned that he would not miss being denied badly spelled, poorly constructed or simply rude messages — even genuine ones — and that this procedure would be most effective in identifying spam that was not caught by his frontline spam filters. Additionally, this system means that any spam that is delivered does at least have the virtue of being well written, something which mitigates a good part of the offence, he feels.

This is why I have been employed as an ’email butler’, and why you are hearing from me rather than receiving a reply directly from Mr Stafford. Please understand, I am certainly not saying that your message *is* spam, merely that it fails on my checks of what we regard as proper English. Perhaps you have misused the apostrophe? I’m afraid to say that the misuse of just one of these little fellows is enough to have your message rejected (not so with mis-spellings, which my employer allows, in my opinion, to compose a very generous percentage of the message).

If you feel that your message is important enough to be brought to Mr Stafford’s attention then I would urge you to either redraft with more care, or to send a short note to Mr Stafford requesting that you be added to my list of his trusted friends and colleagues — I’m afraid to say that, as has always been the case, the ‘right sort’ are allowed to get away with behaviour that would have the ordinary person thrown out of polite society!


E Butler

On behalf of Tom Stafford, Esq

4 replies on “It is with regret…”

found this while perusing ‘language log’:

November 04, 2005
Word rage outside the Anglosphere?

When Lynne Truss wrote that “people who put an apostrophe in the wrong place … deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave”, many in the Anglo-Saxon world cheered and bought her book. But even without publications to peddle, English speakers often threaten violence in support of linguistic norms.

Poke the ground cover in places like The Guardian’s Talk forums, and out slither things like

Perhaps we should cut out manager’s tongues. Then we wouldn’t have to put up with their hideous mutilation of the language?

Yes, perhaps we should cut their fingers off at the oxters. And paralyse them from the neck down as well, just to be on the safe side?


“Let’s touch base on that.”

No, let’s touch your bloody face with my knuckles, repeatedly.

Of course this is all in good fun. No mayhem or mutilation is committed or even seriously intended. But still, there’s an impulse of genuine anger behind the jokes, just as there seems to be genuine disgust in other negative reactions to linguistic variation.

I’ve always assumed that such reactions are a cultural universal. But a few days ago, I read something that made me wonder. AA Gill wrote in The Times that

A simmering, unfocused lurking anger is the collective cross England bears with ill grace. …

The English aren’t people who strive for greatness, they’re driven to it by a flaming irritation. It was anger that built the Industrial Age, which forged expeditions of discovery. It was the need for self-control that found an outlet in cataloguing, litigating and ordering the natural world. It was the blind fury with imprecise and stubborn inanimate objects that created generations of engineers and inventors. The anger at sin and unfairness that forged their particular earth-bound, pedantic spirituality and their puce-faced, finger-jabbing, spittle-flecked politics. …

Anger has driven the English to achievement and greatness in a bewildering pantheon of disciplines. At the core of that anger is the knowledge that they could go absolutely berserk with an axe if they didn’t bind themselves with all sorts of restraints, of manners, embarrassment and awkwardness and garden sheds.

Gill is a humorist, not a social psychologist, and I’m no friend of broad-brush stereotypes. But as I ticked off in my mind a list of counterexamples to Gill’s position, it occurred to me that I can’t recall any examples of “word rage” among other cultures.

I don’t mean scorning people for having unsophisticated hick accents, or for using the despised dialects of the urban masses. Nor do I mean raising an eyebrow at the ill-considered innovations of the young. I’m not even talking about feeling disgusted at the way someone speaks or writes. I’m talking about reacting to perceived violations of linguistic norms with talk of chopping and stabbing and smashing. Does anyone but the English and their spiritual heirs do this?

If you know examples of language rage in other languages and cultures, or you’re confident that your language and culture lack this feature, please let me know.
Posted by Mark Liberman at

“Perhaps we should cut out manager’s tongues. Then we wouldn’t have to put up with their hideous mutilation of the language?”

Shouldn’t that be “managers’ tongues” ???


I guess English lends itself to ‘word rage’ as letters are not consistent as to the phonemes they represent, so confusing their/there/they’re is possible, whereas in Spanish, or Russian, for example, it would not be. And the linguistic norm you use (or violate) is a class marker, something that the English are quick to get all het up about.

“it occurred to me that I can’t recall any examples of “word rage” among other cultures.”

Let me introduce my sister 😀 We’re both American, and I think she would happily cut off the fingers of anybody that types “there” when they mean to say “they’re” or “their”. Of course, she’s a journalist and majored in english in college. And, yes, we also have some distant English heritage.

Maybe you’re on to something…

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