Spitzer's e-mail

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Yesterday's NYT had a piece on Eliot Spitzer's e-mail while governor of New York: "Governor's Angry Moods Pour Forth in E-Mails", by Jeremy W. Peters (p. A17):

On e-mail he was "Laurence," [his middle name] a sloppy typist who often dashed off messages in fits, riddling them with typos, misspellings and terse abbreviations.

A sample of his on-line style, as printed in the Times:

"Why has the state pty not out out a full list if bruno fundraising and 1199 support for him etc as a way to respond to the fundraising bs?"

(The reference was to a Spitzer campaign to tarnish the reputation of Joseph L. Bruno, then the State Senate majority leader, in retaliation for attacks on Spitzer by Bruno.)

A few comments on his e-mail style…

Some of the features in the sample are reasonably common in rapid e-mailing: lower-casing as in "bruno" (I do it myself in e-mail), sparing use of punctuation as in "etc", ad hoc abbreviation as in "pty" for "party" ("bs" might or might not be an abbreviation; it could just be the orthographic representation of spoken /bi  ɛs/). But two typos — "out out" for (presumably) "put out" and "list if" for "list of" — in a 29-word sentence strikes me as a fairly high rate, even though both errors are of very ordinary types (one anticipation, one typewriter-keyboard misfire). It would be interesting to see the full set of e-mail messages released on Thursday by the State Commission on Public Integrity.

The impression I get is of Spitzer as impatient and hard-driving. Peters writes that the released e-mail messages "show that the former governor could be an irascible and relentless boss." Indeed,

… [According to senior adviser Richard Baum, Spitzer] thought it was "fair game" to call his staff at dawn, during weekends and even while driving a State Police minivan into town to buy the Sunday papers.

… His demeanor in private, with his staff, was much coarser than the publicly poised and proper Eliot Spitzer.

Not someone I'd like to work for. But then I've never had the urge to get into politics.



  1. Brian said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

    Does the article explicitly say that these e-mail were sent from a computer? The two typos that you point out, and similar, are common and frequent mistakes on e-mails sent from a Blackberry or Blackberry-type device.

  2. Tarlach said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 4:02 am

    What exactly was the point of this post? I don't ask this rhetoricly, I honestly don't think the post was finished where an actual point was made.

  3. Robert Coren said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    Actually, both "out out" and "list if" could be typewriter-keyboard misfires; "p" is right next to "o".

  4. Zed A. Shaw said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

    It's the Blackberry. He's not sending these emails from his desktop computer, he's using the blackberry, thus the lack of punctuation, mistaken 'o' for 'p' (those keys are near eachother), and the abbreviations. If you look at the keyboard on a Blackberry you'll see the 'i','o','p', keys near enough that this is a common mistake. I'd be curious though if he was right or left handed, since you'd expect these errors more on the left hand thumb. Another thought could be he's using one of those annoying smaller Blackberries with the try-mode keys where 'i','o', and 'p' are on one key and selecting involves rotating the thumb around.

    I've had *many* bosses that all use this style of writing when they Blackberry, and in the NYC government the "Crackberry" is everywhere. I actually think many of the managers in NYC gov don't even touch Outlook except to check their schedule. I've even seen reading comprehension among managers drop when the email they read on their Blackberry is longer than the 140 character screen they use. Honestly, this device results in more idiotic thought processes and rushed decisions in management than cocaine.

    I then also saw the Blackberry change how managers write their regular emails. Once the realize that subordinates will take the effort to tease out meaning from 5 word emails with no grammar and puncutation, they start to spend less effort on all their communications. It's the analog to IM among teens changing how they write emails as well.

    What's interesting though, is you immediately assumed a mental deficiency in language, rather than some technology impacting the way he writes. I think many linguists fail to acknowledge the impact of technology on writing styles and maybe only recently have started to recognize that changes in type, printing processes, and input devices can alter language.


  5. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    Zed A. Shaw: "What's interesting though, is you immediately assumed a mental deficiency in language, rather than some technology impacting the way he writes.:

    I said clearly that most of the features commented on in the NYT were perfectly ordinary strategies in certain kinds of computer-mediated communication. The rest were the typos. But typos are not mental deficiencies; they are glitches in performance to which *everyone* is subject. The only thing that made them interesting is that they might have been more frequent for Spitzer than for most people (an idea suggested by the NYT reporter), and that this frequency might be a symptom of living in hyper-drive. (Just suggestions, which could be wrong. Spitzer seems to have been a difficult boss, but maybe he was no more unusual in his e-mail style than most people of his class and occupation.)

    I am Blackberry-ignorant, so I missed that connection, and am glad to hear about it.

    But Shaw's somewhat apocalyptic comments on the influences of text messaging are out of line. I know it seems to a lot of people that texting and im-ing are making people stupid, but there's plenty of actual evidence (some already alluded to on LLog) that this is not so. I'll eventually post on the topic; while you're waiting, check out Geoff Nunberg's Fresh Air piece.

  6. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

    To Tarlach: I realize it's insane to reply to comments like yours ("I don't understand why you post what you do"), but here's a very brief overview:

    I post many different kinds of things. Some make points or illustrate points, some explore ideas, some analyze what people have said on some topic, some expose puzzles, some add footnotes to things other people have said. And some are just things I found that I found interesting in one way or another (I don't expect you to share my ideas of what's interesting, but I also don't expect to have to defend these gut feelings to you, or anyone).

    It pleases me when I can find a "little" thing to post about on Language Log every so often (so many of my postings take 40-60 hours, which is why there are not more of them). Actually, I crave these little things. But almost all of them just lead to grief.

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:12 am

    lower-casing as in "bruno" (I do it myself in e-mail),

    I hope you write out the corrections at least fifty times in penance.

    When I was a kid you got walloped on the backside for that. Mind you, I'm not threatening it; what with the Max Mosely case and all I might find myself deluged by a tsunami of txtspk.

  8. Dan T. said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    E-mail style has been going downhill ever since the time, years ago, when it became rampant to top-post and fullquote, instead of carefully trimming quoted material and replying contextually. People who reply on top and fail to trim quotes tend to show a lack of reading comprehension for the message they're replying to (which is quoted in full, headers and trailers included), and often give flippant one-liner replies that fail to actually address the questions they were given.

  9. Alixtii said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

    Dan T.: The "apocalyptic" (to use Zwicky's phrase) nature of your complaint seems odd, as that is precisely the way old-school snail mail letters used to be (and continue to be) written.

  10. Tarlach said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 5:03 am

    That didn't really answer my question. I just wanted to know what the point of the post was. As it stands you seem to be pointing out that people mizpel wile they use lectronic cmmncation. LOL! :) I just figured there was more.

  11. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 10:05 am

    Ah, Language Log "has arrived": finally the "useless post" comments are here, just like Slate's The Fray.

    The more visitors you get, the more opportunity for someone to get annoyed. Trade-offs.

    PS, and a bit towards the topic:

    So, texting has changed the way people spell (at least when texting). Was there any kind of similar phenomenon happening in them Olden Days?

    For example, did the spread of printing technology in Europe also bring about increased literacy rates to begin with? Did spellings change when postal services became well established (when was that finale lettere e droppede anywaye)? Obviously telegrams stop?

    I'll look into this.

  12. gyokusai said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

    Well Dan T., are the assertions in your edifying comment based on anecdotal evidence, or rather on an argument from personal authority? You might want to enlighten us here.


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