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If I Had to Do It All Over Again…


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An updated and expanded version of this editorial: If I Had to Do It Over…

I reflect on the one thing I would have done differently, and why I think it matters.

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I sometimes wonder at how I got here. Not in the biological sense, I mean the long strange trip that ended up here … with websites like Ask Leo! and podcasts such as this one.

And if I had to do it all over again, what one thing would I change?

I would have paid more attention in English class. Heck, I would have taken more English, grammar and writing classes.

The bottom line is that regardless of your profession, writing, especially in this internet-enabled age, is becoming more and more critical. The ability to express yourself clearly and even entertainingly, is often a key differentiator between being good at a job and being great at it.

Communicate I hated writing in school – absolutely hated it. It wasn’t until I started working a real job that I discovered that not only could I write relatively well (though I couldn’t spell to save my life – I still can’t), I actually kinda sorta enjoyed it.

What I hated in school wasn’t writing. It was writing about things I knew nothing about and wasn’t interested in. Once I got past that words started to … well, to trickle out. I’m certainly not about to write the next great American novel. But write I do.

I bring this up because of the number of people who write to me who, to put it bluntly, can’t. They fall into two camps: non-native speakers, for whom English is a second language, and those who’ve grown up speaking English, but still couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. While I have a lot of sympathy for the first group (technically, English is my second language too), I have very little for the second.

Sad as it is, both groups are at a severe disadvantage. It may not be fair, it may not be politically correct, but the practical reality of the internet is that speaking and writing English well, matters.

There used to be a commercial for some vocabulary product that began “People judge you by the words you use …”. It’s not fair, but it’s very, very true. You may be the smartest, coolest, most wonderful and professional person on the planet, but if your email and your internet posts and your other writings sound like a spoiled teenager that didn’t finish high school, don’t be surprised if that exactly how you’re treated.

I’d love to hear what you think. Post a comment to this article below.

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47 comments on “If I Had to Do It All Over Again…”

  1. hi leo
    nicely put!
    one question was left unanswered for me: what is (technically) your native tongue? i tried hard and didn’t notice any accent i could put into any “box”. i would guess “the netherlands” though…looking at your name that might fit. ;-)

    and even if you can accept some people not being able to write/spell english correctly because its not their first language, i sometimes have a hard time agreeing with the degree some people lack that ability. as you said…it influences the way people perceive you as…not fair, not pc but true…

    i had to force myself a tad bit to avoid typos and lazyisms since this ain’t my native tongue either. but in times of the internet and dvds everyone in any first world country has the means to do something about their lack of experience with languages. especially with english. it’s such an easy language (no offense meant, i love it)! at least basic communication should be doable for anyone who wants to be perceived as an intelligent person.

    i can understand that its tough as a kid to see the benefits and disadvantages of lacking the ability to speak and write at least english (besides their native tongue), i didn’t realize that in school. but anyone over 20 could have done something about it.

    the only problem i have with the whole thing: if i’d tell anyone who actually has that problem, it would in a way be like saying “hey you sound like an idiot”. i fear the positive intention might be overheard by the “victim”.

    keep up the good work

  2. You guessed well … my first language was Dutch. But note I said “technically”. I spoke only Dutch until I was about 3 – even though I was living in Canada at the time. Hence I learned English at a very young age. So calling it my “second language” is stretching the point just a little, though it is accurate.

    But it does give me a bit of respect, and some sympathy, for those that truly learn it as a second language. In particular, as I’ve helped adult relatives in Holland try and understand some of the rules and idioms. It’s a challenge for them, to be sure. English is a VERY difficult language for many reasons.

    And very important.

  3. Well written (and spoken). I had my son listen to your comments – he is in a writing class he doesn’t have much use for.

    By the way, I work with a full blooded Yupik Eskimo fellow, for whom English is a definitely a second language. He grew up speaking Yupik Eskimo as a first language, but can write, speak, and spell English better than most of us who grew up with English.

    Thanks this gem and your other helpful articles,


  4. Leo – you touched the same nerve that we both appear to share (2/23/06) – functional or semi-functional illiteracy for all to “see.” I’m 64 and have been a major geek since I was 14. My dad always beat me up about how important the ability to communicate would be throughout life. Now that I have a retrospective of note to look back on – he was dead on.

    Being insatiably curious and, as I just learned via a blog, an in-control ADD I.T. professional – I have gone through several hundred podcasts looking for a way to satisfy my curiosity (during my 35 minute [each way] commute – and as I work around the house on weekends). I can’t believe how bad it is out there. Thus far the only trade-off between being informed and listening to a functional illiterate is Todd Chochrane’s GeekNewsCentral podcasts. The only reason I stay “suscribed” (Todd’s word) is because he hits my information needs on the money. But he butcher’s English so badly that I actually become internally irate. I wrote him 6 or 7 months ago to tell him that he should hunt down this Jr. High English teachers and smack them both for failing him. I also warned him that someone, with a command of English, will take away his spot in a blink of an eye because he or she will sound like the have a meaningful education (like 98% of the TV news anchors, etc.) and will talk as if they can be trusted. Actually I’d love it if Andy McCaskey (Shashdot Review) and Todd would trade places.

    Rant Over – thanks for reading this far – John Shea

    CC – Todd Cochrane

  5. Thinking you, Leo, may be interested, I wanted to let you know that you were suggested by Google when I searched– being the most wonderful person on the planet:. Also, my degree is a BA: English! Love, Dana Elle Richards Ex of

  6. Now that I have girls who want to be writers, and was told by my college comp. teacher that I should be a writer, I confess that good writing is work, work, work. It takes effort, brains, time, and sometimes, research. Those slave-driving language teachers in high school were right on. You have to learn grammar, language mechanics,and even literary techniques to be a good writer and communicator.

  7. Is it lazyism ‘ JP’s term’ not capitalize or to use proper punctuation, I know it bothers me to read them,, But then I suppose a lot of people are bothered with my writing, One that bothers me the most is I, people who use i this and i that. thats all i have to say about it.


    – Leo
  8. Great article. I am a lost cause in math and far from perfect in writing, but I had the best of all possible English teachers in middle school; she gave five years worth of help in two years… God bless you, Mrs. Raley!

    Here is one of her secrets. For those wanting to build writing skills, try increasing the amount of book reading you do, in subjects you really like. Check your own writing (usage, grammar, spelling etc.) against what you read.

  9. My brother: he has worked for IBM (and a few other big companies) but he cannot be bothered to spell or capitalize worth a d*mn in his E-Mails. How on Earth he manages to get away with this, I cannot begin to imagine. Me, I see this and tear my hair out — which I can’t spare, as I’m going bald as it is! :(

  10. Just like Leo’s technical advice, he’s once again “spot-on” by acknowledging that people form opinions of you by the way in which you write. At least, that’s the case with me and with most other people I know.

    Although I don’t expect all the things I read to be perfect insofar as spelling and grammar, it’s clear when someone hasn’t even made an effort. If that’s how the writer feels, that’s when I don’t take the time to read his words.

    Where I come from, if you wouldn’t even take a moment to spell-check your message nor make the effort to capitalize and punctuate, this is akin to . . . Well, what’s the point? Just imagine your own list of ill-mannered behaviors and you’ll get an idea of how I feel when someone writes in a manner indicating he didn’t give a hoot. Just my penny’s worth.

    Thanks, Leo. As always, a great, great article.

    P.S.: Use Firefox and enable the built-in spell-checker. You’ll wonder how you ever managed without it. Does Internet Explorer spell-check yet? I don’t see that feature in IE and that’s a small part of why I don’t use it.

  11. With the contacts made these days on the Internet (without face-to-face contact), all too frequently it’s your written (er, typed) words that represent who you are. Like you, Leo, I hated writing in school, and I think you hit the nail on the head as far as my reason for hating it. I can’t write about something I’m unfamiliar with, or disinterested in learning about. But give me a cause near and dear to my heart, or ask me to write about a subject I do know, and I can do a pretty respectable job of writing.

    All lower-case in online writing drives me nuts, as does WRITING IN ALL CAPS. Ugh!!

  12. I love your articles, Leo. But, even though you write well, you do seem to have your share of grammar and punctuation problems. For example, quite often a well-place comma would make your sentences more readable, and using “who”, instead of “that”, when referring to people, is still better in written text, even though most people don’t make the distinction when speaking. And there are other things that pop up from time to time in your articles.

    I’m not saying I’m wonderful at writing, but then I don’t write for an important website. I had always assumed that you have so darned much to get done at any given time, that editing articles to make them perfect would be low on your to-do list. But since you brought the subject up, I thought I would put my 2 cents worth in.

    And don’t get me wrong; I love your newsletters and the way you run your site. So I’ll repeat what your other fans say: Keep up the good work!

  13. Thank you! My boss writes atrocious English. If I, as her secretary, comment on it, she tells me that she’s not writing to an English instructor. She can’t spell and doesn’t know the difference between homonyms (i.e. your, you’re, etc.). She’s a very intelligent person, but you wouldn’t know it from her writing.

    Thanks for letting me blow off some steam.

  14. The popularity of text messaging has a lot to answer for. It made the use of lower case and the lack of punctuation acceptable, not to mention the gimmicky short cuts like gr8 and yr.The lack, or misuse, of punctuation makes some attempts at communication incomprehensible.
    Spell checkers are useful but have made me lazy as I tend to rely upon them rather than thinking about the spelling.

  15. ” I hated writing in school – absolutely hated it.”

    Well, for me it was anything to do with math, and, unlike you, I never overcame the limitation. I did not hate math, it terrified me.

    I bless the day small calculators were invented.

  16. Leo, you are spot on. “your written and spoken word indicates to all who and what you are.” My computer is used for writing and the stock market (requires math). I’m an 9th grade dropout, wife 11th grade dropout, 6 kids by 26. Speaking and writing saved us. Retired at 49! We are 75 today and try our best to instill in all the power of the spoken and written word.

  17. My request for your “How to Backup” for which I paid some amount ( perhaps $9.99 when it first appeared but couldn’t down load) still avoids me with the reply “Already applied” etc…….As for your research on the Engish language, we Australians believe American’s have already done a fair job i.e. Tonight = tonite as one example or what you do with Wind pertaining to Breeze or Wind pertaining to Wind up Gramophone motors “on which “I cut my teeth” some few years after being launched into this world in mid 1922, I don’t claim to know. Then in to a mixed Grocery/Hardware Business by 1939 and an “His Master’s Voice” agency.

    Having left a State rural school ( the term Australians now use for a town school where various gadgets are made such as metal sugar scoops but now T.A.F.E. Colleges but, in my instance, a rural (country) school, some 6 miles from where I’m now domiciled in retirement, school closing down must have initiated Primary Correspondence School (Brisbane) some 500 miles away and I’m now looking at a letter dated 24th.April 1936 from a Miss A.K.Russel, a Primary Correspondence School teacher, some 500 miles away. Miss Russel mentioned about the nasty Criminal ( Kopit was his name..Killer Of People In Trains in local jargon), of that era who overnight killed a train guard named Harrold Speering, surprisingly the latter being a distant relative of mine.
    She complimented me on doing the manly thing to help my Mother on our dairy farm, being the younger of 4 Sons, my Dad having died on Christmas Day 1922.
    You might guess my later problems at the Melbourne Tech. College from August 1942 as a RAAF Trainee Wireless Mech.when confronted with Slide Rules, Algebra, Trigonometry etc. and being paradred before a Flt. Lieut. after a fortnight and told I apparently was unable to do the Course, then passing out about 9 months later from the far superior training, to what our American friends in similar musterings in the Sth.West Pacific, later advised.
    I’m now residing with my wife of almost 65 years at Gayndah, 6 miles from where I was born… and enjoying your frequent Technical publications…Keith McG.

  18. Leo: the course taken in high school l-o-n-g ago which i hated was TYPING (which was for girls not future engineers). I thrived on math & science but only tolerated typing since it was needed to graduate and supposedly would help in college. Now many years later I’m a retired engineer and guess which skill was most used during more than 40 years in the “real world” – TYPING. The tech stuff has been somewhat useful but keyboard knowledge has been most helpful over the years. Apparently the high school administrators knew something i didn’t as a teenager.


      • I too signed up for typing and Data Processing. I did not get the seats as they were classes reserved for the ladies.
        My Grandmother had an old ROYAL typewriter I used to learn, and I still beat the keys with excessive force!
        As for Data Processing, went to technical school when I was 29. It all came naturally to me, even the English writing stuff!

    • I, too, am a guy who is glad he took typing. In my case, I took it twice. I took it the summer after sixth grade at South High School, riding public transit both ways. Whew.

      Then I took it again as a Junior.

      I’m also glad that I became a better writer along the way, but computers have more to do for that than my English teachers. I hated correcting mistakes on the typewriter, with those old correct-o-type sheets, and professors that would not accept any errors, even corrected ones, which meant retyping an entire page when you made one mistake. (My SAT/GRE verbal scores rose from 500 in 1968, to 550 in 1976, to 630 in 1996; while my quantitative scores never went up or down; 800 all three times. (For those of you who don’t know the scoring system, 800 is max.) Maybe I just learned to take tests better along the way.



      • I’m from your era. When I went to school, I used to use expensive erasable bond typing paper. Erasing left no trace. My first IT job was with the company that invented word processing, Wang.

  19. Bewildered Bob,

    Re: “(which was for girls not future engineers)”

    Uh oh! Be careful what you say! Back in your day, maybe girl engineers were a rare find, but times are changing, if too slowly.
    I’m 71 1/2, so I remember “your day” quite well…

    I took a summer typing course at a local college (a girls’ college, back in my day…).
    You are right — a useful skill.

    • I’m 75+ and remember back in 9th grade I took typing just to have the skill – manual typewriters then. I hated English, now that my grandson is with us and in the 2nd grade, the need for good communication — talking, spelling, etc. — is emphasized and helping him with homework so he has a good base and understanding. Lot of books and reading too!

  20. this article has lots of truth in it. writing is truly a way of expressing ones mind and ideas and should be done in the best way possible for the reader to fully get what is in the writers mind.

  21. Dear Leo,
    As a retired elementary school teacher, I couldn’t agree with you more. After thirty-five years of teaching writing to 5th and 6th graders, things went from bad to worse to worst. In the sixties, I taught grammar to these students and they wrote with good clear communication. Then the progressive educators in their liberal wisdom decided to eliminate the teaching of grammar because it was too tedious for their little minds. Reading and trying to interpret what they were trying to say became a daily chore for most teachers. The results that we see today are best shown in the fact that even college students are being enrolled more and more in remedial writing classes.

  22. I totally agree with you, Leo, on the article you wrote 4/7/2015.
    To Add: You do an excellent job of explaining things. I always understand what you are saying and that is not always true with others.

    Thanks for being there and for being YOU!!
    Naomi Gaede

  23. Leo, I couldn’t agree more with your article!

    In addition to poor writing skills (particularly grammar and punctuation) exhibited on the internet, I see a lot of this at work as well. I work in a very technical environment, and many of the people whose work I review are nothing short of brilliant – technically. But the reports and correspondence they produce are magnitudes of order less in terms of quality. And this from people I know have English as their mother tongue.

    I wonder if this is all a result of a general dumbing down, or lowering of standards, by a large segment of society? I’m actually surprised that some people don’t talk in internet lingo – lol! (For example.)

  24. It’s true what you said about the necessity for learning communication skills, but I disagree that not paying attention in English class was detrimental in your case. There are few, if any, geeks who do so well at communicating. Don’t worry about a few misplaced commas. That’s what editors are for.
    As for the rest of you, follow Leo’s advice and work on your English and typing skills.

    • I don’t mind a few misplaced commas, but really have problems with people that don’t use commas or periods or capitalization. I have trouble deciding which sentence a particular word belongs to.

  25. Leo, you are sooo spot-on about writing. To really succeed in life, a young person MUST be able to write well. They will be judged by the quality of their written words all their lives! I taught thousands of young people, at the University level, what they needed to know to be good aircraft pilots for over 25 years. The bestAviation teachers were those who had been there, done that successfully and Ph.D.s like me who had thousands of hours and high qualifications were rare. I stressed writing well and judged my students partly on how good their writing was, grading off for writing errors as well as technical errors in order to stress to them the importance of writing. Some truly had little aptitude for writing, the lazy ones had excuses like “I will have a secretary to fix my writing”, “I can use a spell-checker” (wrong!), etc. Most went away with an appreciation of their shortcoming in writing. Some thanked me years later. Writing is important to a good life! Good job, Leo!

  26. I also feel sorry for those who cannot write. But then, I now know a little about ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, and Dyslexia. I often wonder if some of those who cannot write well, might have one of those problems…. Some nasty personal experiences involving friends, is slowly making me more reasonable towards such people. And someday, I hope they all get the help they need.

    Some writers are simply late bloomers. Like you. But you write very well.

    • As I read more questions over time I find that I’m fairly good at distinguishing between folks for whom English is a second language, folks with assorted cognitive deficits, and folks who simply can’t write their way out of a paper bag. I’m sure I’m not perfect in my assesment, and I try to treat all equally and with respect – but that last group still gets me frustrated. :-)

  27. Leo. Being a high school drop out, I had to learn a lot on my own.
    I found communicating properly and effectively was the only path that would get me to where I wanted to be.
    At 29 I enrolled in tech school. I would have never completed the diploma had I not developed communication skills.
    Now, at the end of my career, it is plainly obvious that some people just don’t “get it” when it comes to English.
    It IS a very hard language to learn if you are not raised with it, and many ESL write and speak much better than those who were.
    Even things like Memos and inter-departmental e-mails have so much lacking that sometimes a phone call is necessary to find out just what the ” ” they are talking about. Most of these people are well educated, professional people.
    Communication is the most important skill you can have. You will get nowhere with your ideas if you can’t relate then to other people. As far as the internet goes, English is by far the most popular language to communicate in.
    Hmmm…. did I just say something?
    Keep up the great work! I read your newsletter and articles all the time.

  28. In a university where I teach in Germany, they recently opened a new program in conjunction with the teacher’s college where engineering students can get a master’s degree which prepares students to teach in vocational school. Two of my students who are in that program are doing it to acquire communication skill to help them as engineers.

  29. Leo:
    I’m gratified that you bring communication skills to our attention as there seems to be a serious lack of it in the world today. When our sons were in high school, they too were “not liking” writing and English. So we told them that if they do not learn to communicate well, no matter how skilled they are at their chosen field they will be dismissed as “lightweights” if they cannot explain their work well.

  30. Not only the written word but the spoken English of today needs MUCH improvement. I agree with you wholeheartedly, poor English definitely affects my opinion of a person.

  31. Very true Leo, English is my second language ( migrating from Germany to Australia at the age of 26 with no English knowledge ) I started to learn the hard way with little picture and phrase -books after 12 hours night shifts to earn some money.
    But I always tried to speak and write properly. And actually found that English is far easier grammatically than German. Living in Australia I was baffled by their “Strine” for a while but loved it.
    Buying a PC at age 70 and learning from scratch helped very much with spellcheckers, exact search phrases etc. I am disappointed with the new trend of “texting” which butchers English and the Americanization of proper English spelling
    But the young generation makes their own rules and will have to live with them.

  32. Very well said, Leo. Danish is my native language and I learned British English, German and French in school. It does bother me a lot to see all the catering to the Hispanic language with signs everywhere and even on government sites. All other nationalities have to learn English to get along so why not use English ONLY as the official language in the USA? I do like the sign on Facebook that says: “Never make fun of a person who speaks broken English. It means that he knows another language” to which I usually add “or two or more”. I don’t quite agree that English is an easy language even though I had no trouble learning it. I do have many poems and stories listing all the inconsistencies in both spelling and pronunciation. For example, police does not rhyme with ice, and present has multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. But HURRAH for a language we can all have in common. Thank you so much for all the information which you so freely share.

  33. Leo, PLEASE, PLEASE, do NOT be Politically Correct, although as a writer, especially on the Internet, I guess you have no choice. I honestly believe that, today, in this world, political correctness has led to the deaths of people, possibly and namely, murdered at least inside the U.S.!!


  34. very interesting! the fact is that ,atleast in France less ans less jung people write and read…
    In my opinion the point isen’t to make grammary mistakes, but to be able to be clear when one try to express something
    the french adage say “ce qui se conçoit bien s’enonce clairement”
    that is “what is well conceived is clearly stated”
    Both are linked and necessary
    If you are short of one of these, you’ll face difficulties to be understood


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