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If I Had to Do It All Over Again… [rerun]

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

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[This podcast was originally published February 23, 2006. -Leo]


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.

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 who didn’t finish high school, don’t be surprised if
that’s exactly how you’re treated.

I’d love to hear what you think. Visit, and enter 9702 in the go to article number box. Leave a comment, I read them all. And while you’re there: sign up for my free weekly newsletter.

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18 comments on “If I Had to Do It All Over Again… [rerun]”

  1. Every time I visit this website from Google I am given horrible results with an irritating color of text. Seriously, if you are trying to out due your competition of AskDave then you’ve done a horrible job. Quite frankly, you’ve failed.

    Hash: SHA1

    Black text on white background is a horrible color? Not sure I can help you
    there, I’m afraid.

    (And if you mean, he’s a friend. I don’t think we’re trying
    to outdo each other. :-)



    Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (MingW32)


  3. So true, so true. In the numerous technical newsgroups I frequent, those who are obviously using English as a second (or maybe third or fourth?) language are given plenty of slack, as long as the main idea comes through. On the other hand, those who post things like “can u hlp me plz” are, at best, silently ignored, or answered with statements like “u doesn’t post here anymore”.

    And, unless Google plays with your page somehow, I can’t imagine what is the problem with “black text on a white background”.

  4. I teach computer science at a local junior college. I am going to start my next class with this article – you said it all ! !

  5. I have donated to Leo’s and to Dave’s and appreciate the differences in style, content, and layout!

    What I do not understand about illiterate posts are the misspellings. I use the Google spell check in MS and the right-click under red-lined words in Linux. For every post and e-mail and document. It is so quick and easy. A dictionary in search bar when I really butcher a word.

    I can excuse poor grammar and structure but not misspellings. It is a sign of slovenliness and disrespect for SOMETHINGS (fill in blank).

  6. Good job! – I hope you don’t mind if I send a copy of this article to my grandkids. They need to learn the importance of writing intelligibly. I’ll credit it to you, but they’ve heard similar comments from me in the past.

  7. Leo, I’m an English teacher and I tell my kids this all of the time. I’d love to share this article with them, as I think it may impact some of them. Thank you for your good work and your commitment to good grammar and writing well.

  8. Great article Leo! It is absolutely true, you can be a genius, but if you don’t have the ability to “export” your knowledge, you are worthless. Being able to communicate in any language, with a minimum degree of perfection, is the key for everything. Take care Leo and Merry Christmas!

  9. The bad news is that people in the USA do not have a monoply on verbal/written illiteracy.
    Here in Aussie, we have a generation of people who (it seems) cannot converse without interspersing “um”, ahh” & the one that gets my goat – the use of the word “yeah” in the middle of a sentence.
    To quote a frequent phrase “I’m over it” – for crying out loud, I don’t “know” when someone insists on finishing a sentence with “Ya know”.
    I don’t bloody know, since you are telling the storey and I assume that that is the reason that you are speaking !
    I sympathise with non-English speakers as our language is riddled with dual meanings and really weird spelling constructions, but native English speakers must make the effort to communicate more succinctly.

  10. I completely agree with your views on the very poor standard of English which is prevalent amongst (particularly) young people nowadays. Some of the grammar and spelling I see on the internet is so egregiously bad that one wonders just what sort of education those who have written it have had. I am a UK Scot with a perfect command of English, not because I am particularly clever, but simply because of a good (state, not private) education. I am 68, so it is many years since I attended school, but I have never forgotten the basic rules of grammar and my ability to speak clearly and write correctly has enabled me to have a worthwhile career and gain many promotions. Before retiring, I was involved in recruiting staff to my organisation and I considered candidates’ ability to express themselves clearly and succinctly at least as important as their paper qualifications.
    By the way, your weekly newsletter is absolutely superb – helpful, clearly written guidance with occasional recommendations that I feel I can trust implicitly. I also find the comments by contributors at the end of each piece invaluable. Keep up the good work!

  11. Spot on, Leo. I am a retired IT Technical Manager that crossed over into the “Business Management” world… Excellent communication skills were paramount to being successful outside of the narrow & deep technical world. Explaining technical concepts, and proposing strategies, actions, and investments is vital to the future of any ‘Enterprise’.

    So, folks, students… Take more English writing!

    Also… much to be said about English Literature… to better understand ‘we’ as a people.

  12. I am happy that you have come to this conclusion. You and Chris Pirillo are among the best writers in the computing world. Interesting and well crafted wordsmithing is appreciated and savored. More important, it enables comprehension.

  13. Leo, it is “worse” than you say. When your only contact with someone is thru their writing, you will judge them SOLELY on their writing. That’s how it is. So if you want to be taken seriously, write seriously. If you want to be taken as entertaining, write in an entertaining way. And the test is fair, anyone can learn to write well. Now is the time.

  14. I am reminded of when my daugters placed their raffle ticket in a drawing for a “crochet” set, thinking they might win a set of needles. Turns out it was actually a “croquet” set misspelled as


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