The Pluperfect Virus
By Bob Hirschfeld
Sunday, May 2, 1999
A new computer virus is spreading throughout the Internet, and it is far
more insidious than the recent 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
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
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 sentence structure.
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."