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Computer virus

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 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 room."

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? What the hell is a gerund, anyway?"

A broker at Begg, Barow and Steel 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 '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 time-saver. 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 relatives and stockbrokers.)

Strunkenwhite is particularly difficult to detect because it doesn't come as an e-mail attachment. Instead, it is disguised within the text of an e-mail titled "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 has left government e-mail systems in disarray. Officials at the Office of Management and Budget can no longer transmitelectronic 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 ..."

Meanwhile, bookstores and online booksellers reported a surge in orders for Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." The slim book seems to be the only antidote to the virus.

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