improve your English linguistics and lexicography

Mugged at a gunpoint

I recently got an email from an old friend, asking me to send him £1800. Except of course, it wasn’t really from my friend but from a fraudster who had taken over his email account. What the writer didn’t realise was that the supposed sender of the message was a linguist and lexicographer – and so were most of the people the email was sent to. Within seconds, we all knew it was a scam. The writer had left several unmistakable clues, and it’s interesting to do an analysis of the message. Here is the main part:

I traveled to UK wales for an urgent function and i got mugged at a gun point. All cash and credit cards were stolen away from me. I reported to the police they asked me to wait for 2 weeks to carry out investigations. I am totally freaked out here. Right now, my return flight leaves 24hours from now. I am only telling you this because i do not want you to panic at all. just keep it the way have told you till i return back home… Just wondering if you could loan me 1,800Pounds to settle my bills and to get a taxi down to the airport. I promise to pay back when i return back home.

Some of the clues are blindingly obvious. Even allowing for the informality of email – which could excuse some of the punctuation – it’s unlikely a lexicographer would come up with a sentence like “just keep it the way have told you till i return back home”. And what is “UK wales” supposed to mean? But there are more subtle indicators too. To begin with, my friend is British, so he wouldn’t have written traveled (the American English past tense) and he would probably have said “could you lend me…?” (rather than loan: in British English, loan is more likely to be used in the context of financial institutions loaning large sums of money, football clubs loaning players to other teams, and so on).

What’s really interesting is that it is often just a single insignificant-looking word that makes all the difference. Take, for example, the phrase mugged at a gun point. The indefinite article would never be used here: people are mugged at gunpoint or at knifepoint. Or again, the repeated reference to returning back home: we might “go back home”, but return already includes the notion of “back”, so returning back is tautological. The writer also says his credit cards were “stolen away” from him. Now, our corpus does include plenty of cases of things being “stolen away” from people.  A common theme is “stealing away” market share from a rival company, and there are also examples of people’s power, reputation, or heart being stolen away. But the most frequent context is of one person stealing away someone else’s spouse or partner:

Rhonda has her eyes on him, and steals him away from Tamera.
He stole her away from her husband and by doing so started the great war of Troy.

What you never find is examples of people having money “stolen away”: the particle here seems to signal that we’re talking about something less tangible.

There is much more, but perhaps I’ll leave it to readers to see what else they can find.

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Michael Rundell


  • “To begin with, my friend is British, so he wouldn’t have written traveled (the American English past tense)…”

    Unless you’re referring to the geographic proximity of England and Wales (which is unlikely in the context of “…my friend is British…”), then there would seem to be a “British English past tense” of travel(?). Perhaps you could enlighten those of us who have never, um, traveled much.

    Although that geographic proximity is a pesky thing for someone who wants his readers to believe he needs to fly home. You know what they say — in the UK, they think 200 miles is a long way, and in the US, we think 200 years is a long time.

  • Levi: you ask “there would seem to be a “British English past tense” of travel(?)”. Yes, there’s a more or less systematic difference in the case of verbs ending in -el: British English favours “consonant doubling”, so we say “I travelled” or ‘I’m travelling”. The same applies to verbs like label, cancel, quarrel and disembowel. To find these in the dictionary, you can go to the Options menu and togglke between American and British English settings. Then, at the relevant dictionary entry (say, “travel”) hit the Word Forms button. Good point about him not needing to fly home from “UK Wales”!

  • It does read non-native, possibly sounding a bit like a German writing in English? But then again you can’t be a non native speaker of English I do tend to take notice of small mistakes like the ones mentioned above. It sounds like your fake ‘friend’ read a lot but maybe practiced spoken/written English less..he/she might not even be aware of the subtle differences that local accents represent, not to speak of spelling variations such as those you mention here (British English v. American English). These are tell-tale mistakes which will spot even a good user of the English language as non-native! And they are not easy to correct either! But then I suppose you wouldn’t want to correct a fraudster! Cheers, Raffaella

    EFL Teacher, South of Italy

  • As a linguist who received an e-mail from a linguist friend just like this (same person?) it was extremely clear to me that it was a hoax for many of the reasons suggested in the article.

    No comment was made of the use of “i” rather than “I”. Surely a linguist would never do that even under the informality of an e-mail!

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