The Most Important Skill

I’m often asked what it takes to become a computer programmer.

I’m also often asked questions about computers in general – everything from broken hardware to lost Hotmail passwords.

The answer to the first, and the chances of getting an answer to the rest, have something exceptionally important in common.

Something that most people don’t even consider. And I’m willing to bet it’s not at all what you think.

I’ll give you one hint: today’s topic is off-topic, since it actually has nothing to do with computers or technology.

And yet, it kinda has everything to do with it.

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It’s all about your ability to communicate

The number one reason an Ask Leo! question goes unanswered is that it doesn’t include enough information.

The number two reason?

I can’t understand the question.

Now, you might be tempted to say that this would be because I have a high percentage of non-English speaking readers – and yes, that does play a part, but not as large a part as you might think.

No, when it comes to writing unintelligible questions, it’s the so-called “native English speakers” that actually cause me the most difficulty … and the most frustration.

After all, the folks from non-English speaking countries have a bit of an excuse.

So-called native English speakers do not.

And yes, with over 10 years of experience reading question after question after question, I can usually tell the difference between a native English speaker, and someone for whom English is a second language.

The risks of writing about writing

Obviously, this is a topic that I’ve come to have fairly strong opinions on.

But I always hesitate when I write about writing.


It tends to bring out the nit-pickers; the people who like to point out the hypocrisy of writing about how important it is to write proper English and having grammatical or spelling errors when doing so.

In reality, it’s a good thing, when done respectfully.

I am today a much better writer than I was ten years ago when all this started, in part because of the people who pointed out my errors along the way. A few of those folks have become valued Ask Leo! regulars.

That’s not to say I’m now perfect, or that their job is done. I fully expect there to be errors in this essay as well.

And I fully expect someone will point them out.

Poor-literacy spans all demographics

I’m not speaking of illiteracy – the inability to read or write your native tongue, I’m talking about poor literacy skills. What I see too often is the inability to write (or occasionally speak) in a clear and understandable manner.

I’m also not speaking specifically about so-called “text speak”, or similar shorthands that have evolved for various reasons and at various times. While they do contribute seriously to the overall problem, they’re certainly not – in my opinion at least – the worst offenders.

The worst are those questions that come in that are written in English, but the English is so poorly written that it ranges anywhere from simply unclear to completely incomprehensible.

It happens much more often than you’d expect, and it comes from all demographics: young and old, male and female, and from just about any English-speaking locale.

CommunicateWhy it matters: Getting your computer fixed

It seems pretty obvious: if I can’t understand a question, I can’t help. If it’s really hopeless, I’ll simply skip the question and move on.

But I often do try, and that’s where it can actually get more frustrating.

I often do try to answer poorly written questions. I’ll perhaps guess or try to infer what the problem is from unclear or incomprehensible English.

And sometimes, I get it wrong. I answer a question, but it’s not the question being asked. Or I ask for clarification, and the clarification is just as bad as the original question.

I’ve just wasted my time and the time of whoever was trying to get their problem solved.

All for lack of being able to communicate clearly in English.

It’s not just me.

Computers and technology in general are notorious for requiring clear and accurate descriptions of problems in order to get to the correct resolution. Whether it’s some random person like me on the internet answering questions, a home-town technician, or a company’s support representative – if they can’t understand you, they can’t help you.

All for lack of being able to communicate clearly in English.

Why it matters: That high-paying job

It’d be easy to write off my little rant as that of a frustrated computer geek who’s gone over the edge after reading one too many questions.

If you did, you’d be missing my point1.

The ability to write clear and proper English is about much, much more than just the ability to express a tech problem in language that can be clearly understood.

As an old commercial for a vocabulary improvement product used to claim, “people judge you by the words you use.”

It may or may not be fair, but it is absolutely true.

The same is true about your ability to write – anything – well.

Be it questions, letters to the editor, job applications, or anything else, something written that sounds like it came from a barely-literate teenager is likely to be treated as if that’s exactly who wrote it.

It doesn’t matter how smart you really are; it’s your written and spoken language skills that convey perhaps the most important impression of just who you are.

And even if the impression is wrong, it sticks and can be nearly impossible to overcome.

You’re not going to get that corner office if you speak and write like someone who never finished high school.

Why it matters: The computer programmer

I’m often asked what’s the most important language to learn when becoming a computer programmer.

My response is now: English.

That’s not what most people expect.

The fact is that even a job dealing primarily with computers still deals extensively with the people who use them. Be it the designers, the users, the repair people, the other programmers or managers on the team, it’s all communication, and it’s all an opportunity for you to present yourself as a literate professional.

Or as something else.

And that’s true for any job.

People judge you by the words you use. And how you use them.

It may not be fair, but it is real. You can object, you can insist that it shouldn’t matter, but it does.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d have taken more English classes.


The arguments above really apply to whatever the language of your native land might be.

Naturally, I believe people living in English-speaking countries should be well versed in English and hopefully that makes sense.

However, there’s another characteristic of our planet that is easy to overlook, might also be considered unfair, and yet remains very important.

The vast majority of the internet is in English.

Even if you live in a non-English speaking country, the ability to read (and yes, write) English will open doors to immense amounts of information and assistance that would otherwise remain inaccessible.

Fair or not, it is what it is, and most of it is in English.

ESL: English as a second language

I have a soft spot for non-native speakers who truly make the attempt to learn English and learn it well.

You see, English is my second language. Even though, we were living in Canada at the time, I spoke only Dutch until I was about four.

Now, I also understand that my experience doesn’t really compare to the difficulty of learning a second language as an adult. Especially when that second language is English.

In helping overseas relatives and other friends and acquaintances with their English, it’s become very clear to me that English is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Just about the time you learn a “rule,” you find that there are exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions.

The worst question that an ESL instructor faces, I’m sure, must be “why?”

The only answer I can often come up with is “Because it’s English, and that’s just the way it is.”

Once again, it’s not fair and it’s not easy.

But if you’re living in an English speaking country, if you’re expecting the respect of others in an even semi-professional job in an English speaking country, or if you ever want to access the vast amounts of information available only in English, there is simply no substitute for speaking and writing English.

And I do mean speaking and writing it well. “Enough to get by” isn’t really enough. How people judge you by your use of English, unfair as that might be, requires a lot more skill than just “getting by.”

Yes, it’s that important.

Footnotes & references

1: But I wouldn’t deny it either. 🙂

182 comments on “The Most Important Skill”

  1. Thank you, Leo. I’ve written you before thanking you for your clear concise language. Now I know why. Unfortunately, the people who need this will probably not be able to read well enough to understand it. And , yes, I mean native English speakers.

    • As a retired educator in a technical vocational field (Auto Technology), I must agree with you on this article. Service Manuals for automobiles are mostly written at the 12th grade level yet the school system would send me students that couldn’t communicate at the 7th grade level. Our schools are failing us as a nation. It is too bad that the government will not read nor listen to what you are saying.

  2. If you cannot write correctly and cannot spell correctly, you obviously cannot use grammar check or spell check on a computer. You would never get a job of any kind from me other than landscaping or burger flipping. You certainly do not demonstrate the discipline to write any kind of code. When speaking never use the phrase, “You know.”

  3. Ha ha ha, i remember my old day’s when my mom used to say learn English, and i was always curious why English is important, because my mom don’t know even, why so, thank you Leo for the beautiful article.

  4. Great article, thank you Leo…

    It reminds me why I keep reading your Ask Leo! emails. By being one of ESL readers myself, your concise language helps me to learn English much more then to learn the actual answer (which I know most of the time anyway, after more than 25 years in IT industry).

    Keep ’em coming, please…

  5. Leo: How can you say that you’re wasting your time just because you didn’t understand a poorly worded question? Look at all the people who receive and read “Ask Leo” who aren’t the ones who asked the questions. Even if you completely miss the mark on a question, you still provide useful information.

  6. This Article belongs right up there with all of Humanity’s other “Facts of Life”. Well structured, written, and well spoken, Leo. Bravo, indeed!

  7. Leo, although you maintain a respectful and tactful tone throughout, your real “street cred” is that English IS a second language for you. I was surprised (and very impressed) to learn that you spoke Dutch until you were four. Wow.

  8. Thank you, thank you — fifty times thank you!

    The “conquering language” that English has been, for the last several hundred years, has indeed made it THE language of international business, finance, air traffic control; even the French recognize that English is the lingua franca of the international security community, and stress that their military officers learn and master it! Yet so many native-born speakers of this incredible language refuse to learn it or use it well.

    Those of us who do take pride in our language skills, and who enjoy a well-crafted statement, owe it to ourselves to keep on setting that example and teaching by it.

    I start teaching an introduction to programming course next month, and your blog today will become a valuable resource for my students and me.

    Thank you! (Oh, wait, did I say that already?)

    • “…even the French recognize that English is the lingua franca of the international security community…”

      And the phrase, lingua franca, is French!

  9. Well said! This is one of your best advice columns yet. Improper English usage and grammar has always rankled me, and sadly, this trend seems to be intensifying over the years. By the way, Dev, the first person singular pronoun is “I”, not “i”.

  10. OMG! I know what you mean … as a programmer and a tech… “What’s wrong with it?” “It’s broke” “Oh, okay, what won’t it do?” “Anything…” “Okay, let’s start from the beginning… Is it plugged in?” …

  11. great article Leo. im no expert and here on the computer i dont use puntuation much. but there are a couple words that drive me insane that ppl use incorrectly allllllllll the time. one is ” i hope we dont LOOSE the game.” and the other one is ” it was so QUITE you could hear a pin drop “lol
    i dont know how you do it.

  12. I intend to send a copy of this article to everyone I know.
    In our technocentric world (I know that’s not in the dictionary), it seems that our leaders and even our educators think that relevance is all about math and science.
    As you said, it matters little how advanced your idea if you cannot convey that to those who would benefit. Even less if you can’t get an audience and are written off because you sound illiterate.
    Of the three “R’s”, ‘rithmatic is only a third.
    I think your comments are additionally powerful coming from one whose life revolves around technology.
    Thank you.

  13. Merry Christmas, Leo. And thank you for the English lesson. My wife who is Polish-Ukrainian had to speak three languages when she arrived in the USA as a small child and I really understand where your coming from.

  14. so your saying you would rather have a long detailed explanation of the problem than a short concise one. that explains why some of my questions did not get answered. i was trying not to make them not too involved and keep them to the point. but to find out i was actually not elucidating the problem i was trying to convey. i will from this time forward make every attempt to be certain i explain each and every detail in my forthcoming correspondence with you. i Thank You for explaining this aspect of better communication.

    Without knowing exactly what the question was you asked, or how you asked it, I can’t say why it wasn’t answered. For the record I say (over and over, and in several places) that I cannot answer every question – I simply get too many. Simply adding words to make it longer won’t get it answered if it’s something I wouldn’t answer for other reasons. What other reasons? That would be this article: Why didn’t you answer my question?


  15. Very good article! I am a retired IT VP with 50 years of experience in the IT game. I started in punched cards and have witnessed the evolution of automation in this country. The key to success in IT game is “Communication Skills” the technical skills are secondary! A good listener who has rational, reasoning and logical thinking is a gem.
    Merry Christmas!

  16. Great article, Leo! I’m 72 and was a programmer for most of my life. Your words couldn’t be truer. Wish everyone would read this and understand the importance of learning English well!

  17. Well said!

    I might also note that a bit of logic goes a long way.

    I got a question today: “I was setting up my backup program, and got this error message…” And it didn’t occur to you that the name of the backup program might be useful information?

  18. Leo, I find I must really concentrate to get the sense of what some “educated” people are trying to portray. Confusing homonyms is the least of the problems. The reason, I believe, that English is so hard to learn is that it is the result of many many other languages incorporated in it. Latin, French, German, Spanish, etc. I enjoy your column. Keep up the good work. 73

  19. A superb article. I loved English, especially in Miss Handron’s 8th grade (or so), where we spent half our time diagramming sentences. I was fascinated by the structures, which probably would have told me I was destined for a programming career if I were worried about a career at the time. It took a while, but I finally found a current book on the subject, which is next to McCracken’s Fortran IV in my bookcase.

  20. Dear Leo: Spot On! I am a retired engineer. I worked for a large medical device company. My job was to organize engineering-change-orders (ECOs) for our engineering department. Believe me, for an educated group of people their grammar skills were atrocious. English skills (or lack thereof) are a pet peeve of mine so I’m so glad to see articles such as yours.

  21. Leo, please forgive me this one indiscretion, but I had to laugh when I read your quote “… it’s your written and spoken language skills that convey perhaps the most important impression of just who you are” and then read the paragraph to the left of it that said “Now, you might be tempted to say that this would be because I have high percentage of non-English speaking readers”.
    Too funny!

  22. Ah, yes, the importance of clarity. One of my jobs is software support. A type of question that arrives perhaps half a dozen times a year is a careful explanation of when they bought the software, complete with time stamp and all order and transaction numbers. The gist of the question is then, “I followed the directions exactly but it doesn’t work. Why?”

    There is no clue in the question about what the software is doing that is unexpected or not doing that it should or what the error messages are, if any.

    Sometimes it takes a bit of back and forth to extract the information I need to help the person. 🙂

    Great article, Leo.

    BTW, English is also my second language. The Amish dialect of German was my first. Started learning English about 6 years old.


  23. Well done Leo; clearly there is now a small army standing right behind you on this subject … thought we are probably swimming against the tide!

    Oh, Merry Christmas too!

    • Jannoth, if the “small army standing right behind you” is “swimming against the tide” then it is most likely a navy! [grin]

  24. Brilliant! I’ve circulated this to friends, and to my computer geek grandson.

    As a banker, I found good communication vital for success. I set my staff reading assignments from 20th century authors – Hemingway, Waugh, Powell, Fleming – to improve their literacy – and they were managers!

    How can you get a research grant if you can’t explain what you are planning to do?

    How can you win a case if the jury don’t understand you?


  25. As a public schools K-12 educator who went to the dark side of software support with the district, I say bravo for your right on comments. It was amazing to me that so many of our “educated” staff members could not communicate with any great clarity a description of what was wrong with their hardware or what was needed in knowledge in software support.

  26. After writing my CV as a 25 year old the instructor asked me how much I thought it was worth. I gave an arbitrary value. He said think again. So I revised it by a small amount. He then said if I obtained the job and worked for up to say the age of 65 how much would I earn in that time. That was the value written on that one piece of paper.

  27. I’ve enjoyed a career that’s spanned 40 years in oral and written communication with customers at every level, including boards of directors at Fortune 500 companies and government, both foreign and domestic. I possess great skills in language, vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. And I STILL find myself committing mistakes in ambiguity and uncertainty at times. A classic example is “I never discuss problems with my wife.”

    Does that mean I never include my wife in any discussions about problems? Or that I don’t discuss any problems that I have with my wife? Another is the legend about a wife telegraphing her husband 100 years ago about buying expensive jewelry. His reply was “No, price too high.” However, the comma was omitted to read, “No price too high,” and it reassured her to spend the money.

    Everyone makes mistakes of this order. The point is to think WHILE you speak, not just assume that it’s obvious to you; therefore, it’s obvious to your listeners. And always, yes, ALWAYS, proof-read what you’ve written. Not simply glance over it, but LOOK for errors or confusion. There is a reason why I was paid well for an otherwise mediocre job. Good enough is NOT good enough. [End of pet rant]

  28. Leo,
    I hope you have a good brake. (Holiday)
    I wanna tell you something I think that you have never heard of before.
    I just pulled out a USB-stick from my clothesdryer. It had also gone through the washer. But I expected it to have been blown-up. (by the static in the dryer).
    However after I plugged it in to test it::::
    It still worked. (I was surprised)
    But I made a backup of it right away.
    I have been in computer programming for over 40 years (now retired). I started programming (in 1970) on a BIG (unix based) 4 kilobytes computer.
    It was toroid based memory.
    And all coding was done on on/off switches
    (binary stored on a tickertape)
    I also taught assembly programming at
    SS Marie College in Ontario.
    If I remember correct you also did assembly coding at MS.
    Now here is a question ::::
    Is MS Windows coded all in assembly ?????
    If NOT; why NOT.

    TTYL Jens
    Happy New Year

    • I remember back in 1970 I started learning to program. We discussed the advantages of low- and high-level languages and the official position even then was that a well-designed high-level language (like C) could be more efficient than an assembly program because the code generator can use all the machine features and optimizations all the time. Today processors (all computer components) are almost infinitely faster than they were then- ultimate optimization of code is less critical than it was. High-level code is faster to develop, and easier to understand and maintain. Although it’s possible that critical core components of Windows may be written in assembly language, I hope and expect the majority of it is not.

  29. Thanks Leo for this wonderful article!

    English is my second or even third language.
    While I was a young child (age 8-12), I used to attend an almost daily lecture in basic English for an hour or so, but never really used it to speak, read or write.
    At age 21-22, I started to read more often some books, news articles and computer help topics, read and write emails, but still not used it as my primary speaking language.
    To date, turning age 24, with English still as a second, how would you rate my English skills, am I on the right track?

    Obviously I can’t speak to your spoken English, but what you’ve written above looks pretty good. Only a couple of minor issues that could be attributed to English not being your first language. Overall better than what I see from many “natic” speakers. Smile

  30. Thank you for this article. I agree 100%. I am also one of those who while born in Canada did not speak any English until I started school. One other area of importance I have not seen mentioned is publishing. In this day of self-publishing thanks to Amazon, etc., there is a dearth of literature available that uses correct grammar, syntax, puncutation and spelling. How does an aspiring author expect anyone to purchase a book (or a second) if they cannot even use words properly? I see such unbelievable mistakes as using their and there incorrectly. An author will get no money from me for such lazy publishing. Proof read, don’t just use spell check. Spell check is used as a crutch. Just because you have spelled a word correctly does not mean it is actually the one that should be used in that sentence. Learn the meanings. I love the previous mention of diagramming sentences. I fear this knowledge has been lost and is not being taught in schools today.

  31. Mr. Leo, the content of your (clear and understandable) words remind me of Prof. Higgins’ initiating song of “My fair Lady”:
    The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
    There even are places where English completely
    In America, they haven’t used it for years!
    Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

  32. Leo,
    I read many of your postings and I often read those about a problem that I have ever encountered simply because I am curious about the topic. Sometimes a solution to one problem proves a solution to an understanding of another.
    Of all the postings that I have read from you, this was one of your most valuable and interesting. I am a writer and many have told that I both write and speak well. When they ask how I learned to write or to express myself well, I tell them that the secret is simple- I read! A lot!”, much more than I write.
    Good writing is not found in the technical, always grammatically correct use of proper English as much as it is the ability to convey “meaning” to your audience. After all, ““Love is just a word until someone comes along and gives it meaning.”
    Leo, Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones (who give you the “meaning of Love”… and thanks for the gift of your post.

  33. Hi Leo, Does a tablet allow a person to read a book in English only. I have a step-son who speaks 5 languages, He has some IT training and
    his native tounge is Danish. Can I buy him a Danish readed from Books a million?

  34. Leo, excellent article! I certainly see no frustration in all this. I totally agree that the language in which a problem is described is irrelevant (native language or not). If one knows little about a subject, he is bound to explain details using inappropriate words, and mislead the reader. In order to ask a question well, one must first learn more than just the basics of a technology.
    So, now, when I have a computer question, I first search the web, forums and the like, and refine my understanding of what the symptoms tell me, before I ask anyone a question.
    Please, please, keep up the good work!

  35. I’m so glad, Leo, that you went “off topic” and said something about the importance of the English language in writing. If a person does not know how to use his own language properly, he won’t even be able to read the kinds of books that might teach him or her all sorts of useful things.

    As a copy editor by profession, I’m simply aghast at the mistakes made in manuscripts that authors want turned into published books. One senior editor told me he finally left the profession because he had to rewrite so much, even for famous authors, that he was tired of their getting all the praise while he did most of the work. For those of us who like to rewrite what is poorly written and don’t care about the praise, it’s difficult to explain to a writer what rule he or she has broken and why it should be fixed. I have spent many words carefully explaining to authors why a sentence or paragraph needs a change, but on the next manuscript they write, they make the identical errors. They learned nothing, even with my being their private English tutor! Much easier to deal with are authors who are now dead. Assuming that their content is worth putting into print, I love to make those authors shine before the work goes to press.

    You are right, Leo. When applying for a job in the computer industry, you had better know how to write that resume or have a good copy editor help you. In addition to that, you’ll need some basic English and writing courses. It would help as well to take a course or two in how to communicate verbally with your colleagues and bosses–a course with plenty of role playing and good critiquing of student performance. Are there such courses? There should be!

    I think those who write explanations of computer programs and computer “Help” screens should go through a rigorous course that teaches them how to analyze their own writing for clarity. I have followed some Help instructions to the letter, but when some important step has been left out, I am unable to perform the action described. Instructions should be people-tested before they go on line.

    I will admit that part of the problem, say in emails, is that it is much harder to reread what you write when it’s on a screen and you can see only part of it at a time. It is much easier to correct what you wrote with a hard copy of the whole thing in front of you and a pen or pencil in hand to make the corrections. In giving you my feedback here, for example, I found myself having to go back several times to the “Preview” in order to find my own mistakes. Even keying in the corrections yourself using a computer can create additional problems because the eye does not see as well when, say, you remove some words to type in others, but do not notice that one of the former words got left behind.

    Oh, I could go on and on about poor communication. I blame our visually oriented culture for these skills falling into disuse. Images are used to teach things that would be a lot clearer in words, verbal or written.

  36. Having had a career of 25 years in software development, I say: spot on!
    Whether I was programmer, analyst, designer, tester, teacher, data base designer, project manager, the ability to communicate always was my first and most important skill. Every day, my job was to translate one text into another: a user’s communications into user specs, user specs into system design, system design into technical design, technical design into program specs, program specs into source code, various designs into database specs, program specs into test specs, various specs into documentation for users and operators. I often saw that specs made by others were unclear, and that this could go unnoticed as long as people weren’t critical about them. I’ve seen disappointed users who turned down the first test version of their new information system as it “wasn’t what they had ordered”: the designers had left important details vaguely formulated, the analysts had guessed at what it was supposed to mean, and in the end the programmers (whose job was to pass the details on *not* to another human but to a compiler) made the decisions that the users and designers and analysts had found too complicated or too cumbersome. How the hell were the programmers to know what the users wanted? Of course, they should have returned the vague specs to the analysts. But they didn’t, as the project was already late. They thought they could interpret what the specs said, using their own logic. After the first user test, the required adaptations impacted several programs and part of the database. Making the project even later, of course.
    I enjoyed most of my time in the field.
    And my language skills were my most valued tool. Always!

  37. You’re right about the ability to speak English being critical to survival in today’s, computer/internet-oriented world. Not long ago, I got so frustrated with people’s inability to write one complete sentence without a spelling or grammatical error, I created a Facebook page called Help Save the English Language. (It hasn’t solved the problem, by any means…but the “rant” made me feel a little better.)
    I believe you’re right about the root of the problem: errors in speaking and writing are not being taught or corrected in school. High school teachers pass the buck to elementary teachers…who, in turn, blame the parents. My feeling is: sorry, teachers, it’s YOUR job. Get on with it!
    And don’t say it’s going to hurt little Johnny’s feelings. Better to hurt his feelings NOW than to impede his ability to communicate effectively for the rest of his life.
    Until Johnny knows the difference between to, too and two…and there, their and they’re….and bring vs take, then and than….(the list goes on)…he’ll be relegated to second-class citizenry, not only in a digital world, but any world where the ability to communicate clearly and concisely is paramount.

  38. I lived in the USA for many years, and went to school there. I have worked with International English and American English for years as a recruiter reading CVs, reading manuscripts in various languages.
    I believe that many people write as they speak, and that in various language, not only in English.

    I read Dutch, German, Spanish and French..and I find that while there is a tendency for higher educated people to write their mother tongue language better, that is not necessarily true.

    The ability to pass on a comprehensive thought is becoming more and more difficult EVERYWHERE, however in difference to my colleagues west of the Atlantic, North Americans often write heir thoughts pat down.

    Lastly, Leo…
    Prettige Kerstdagen en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

  39. @Esley
    There are definitely ebooks available in Danish. From what I’ve heard, there are not nearly as many available as in English, and you’ll probably find the choices quite limited. You might want to research the availability of specific books you’d be interested in.

    A tablet is probably a better choice in your case than a dedicated ebook reader, because that way you’re not limited to one particular format.

    This is just a feeling I have, but I believe the ebook industry is going to grow exponentially in the near future, and it’s quite possible that especially in languages like Danish, which is spoken by only about 6 million people, ebooks might eventually become the preferred method of book distribution.

  40. I could not agree with you more! As an IT person for many years, not only did I have to be able to talk with my “customers”, I had to be able to listen (amazing how many people don’t seem to have this skill) and I had to be able to write. I wrote instruction manuals, project descriptions, notes that summarized the outcome of project meetings, analyses of department processes for computer system needs assessments, etc., etc. I used to say that the actual computer part (coding, problem-solving, report writing, whatever) was the easy part.

  41. Leo: Thank you so much for bringing up that topic. I admire your writing to the heavens – I always bring you up as the best example I know of for sheer clarity. I like to say, “when Leo explains something to you, you stay explained!”. But it’s not only because you can write English – in fact that is not your primary skill at all. What you do best is to put yourself into the mind of the reader. You imagine what he must logically and necessarily be wondering about (you would!) and then you answer that question without waiting for anyone to ask it. You are a teacher. I believe that the world of computers has already destroyed not only the ability to write a clear narrative explanation but the very desire to do so. The computer nerds seem to believe in their egotistical hearts that a terse, jargon filled referential sentence is all that anyone needs. In other words they will refer to a “xml conformant filter screen” and never give a hint what that means. They will even put it in italics as though that will ram its meaning into your mind. Then they expect you to read references to it in 50 places and by that method eventually grok it. How dumb! I keep telling the Free Software People that they struggle to match the commercial software because they categorically refuse to explain to anyone how to use their confusing, feature and jargon permeated software. If you, Leo, were to write a clear tutorial for, let’s just pick Thunderbird, they would get a 30 point boost in market share overnight. But with their impenetrable, impossible forums and technical answers, who could want to be anywhere that kind of support. The developers are 1% of potential users but here is another case of the 1% destroying utility for the 99%. And it’s especially galling since the software itself is well written and has wonderful promise.
    And despite your topic, aren’t some of the illiterate comments just unbelievable? I guess some people just have no idea what editing or clarity would feel like.

    One of my assistants pointed out to me that comments on this article appear to be better than average in terms of grammar and spelling. Just as I had to stay on my toes while writing, it seems that many commenters feel the same way. None are perfect, of course, myself most definitely included.

  42. Leo: You said you started out speaking Dutch and yet you get a comment about speaking Danish. I find that amazing since it is so common. As an adopted Danish speaker, I am always amazed at the way people will hear “Dutch” and think “Danish”. Or vice versa. The languages themselves are related but why is that significant? Two small countries? No one hears “Danish” and thinks “Flemish”. If people made comparisons, while keeping the concepts separate, that would make sense. But why the unthinking identification and confusion?

  43. I agree with you 100%. I belong to a forum, helping people with Windows 7 problems. Its extremely frustrating when you just cannot figure out what the person in need of help, actually WANTS help with. I also agree with you that sometimes non – English speakers are more precise with their wording. Some native English speakers are almost totally incomprehensible both in wording and syntax. Trying to figure out what the problem IS is sometimes harder than fixing the problem itself!

  44. hi Leo
    English – especially Technical writing skill – is important – but understanding concepts is equally important. Developing programs in non-English speaking counties is a recipe for trouble

  45. I’m surprised you brought this up. I don’t think the writers you describe in your article will recognize themselves and correct their shortcomings. After more than 20 years conducting classes of mostly freshly processed highschoolers in a junior college, pathetic and discouraging as it is I’ve learned to accept the general ignorance of the general public. Generally, people finish high school and, after twelve years of mostly inattention, a lack of interest and general boredom, haven’t learned to read well and therefore don’t. Class members have told me that since they just finished high school they shouldn’t be expected to be able to read a newspaper. If they don’t understand the language well enough to read, they certainly aren’t going to learn to communicate well either verbally or with the written word. I blame the inefficiency and lack of integrity of our schooling system. It’s not an education system; it’s a schooling system. We run the kids through our schools but they don’t become educated unless they somehow conjure up the wherewithall to do it themselves.

  46. Hi Leo I can’t really add any more to the above comments. Your site and answers are beacons of clarity in a mixed up world!
    With best wishes for the holidays and 2013

  47. Leo, your comments are entirely accurate as far as they go. They also invite, in fact scream, for an equivalent rant against “technospeak”. I marvel at the number of so-called computer experts who can’t utter an entire sentence without resorting to technical terms that are unnecessary in answering or explaining something. As I told my students in a beginners computer class many years ago. “The English language has been around for many centuries and will be around for many more. The same may not be true for ‘computer speak’.”

  48. I have often noted that many people in other countries tend to know English quite well, whether they might seem ‘awkward’ to us or not. It is a prerequisite to their doing business and living in harmony with the world. English, and French as well are the main diplomatic languages on this planet and we are woefully inadequite at foreignm languages, even mocking them as some kind of alien culture, to our real detriment.

    We have to understand our world and it is not all ‘American’. Anti-culturalism is a curse of an isolated public. When learning a foreign tongue is considered silly and unpatriotic we are wasting our influence with sheer ignorance. These courses were far more popular 50 years ago when it was understood our economy relied on keeping our place in foreign markets. Those values have been lost in a sea of blind dependence on other countries to provide for our needs at the lowest cost and greatest convenience. We have forgotten the meaning of real trading and rational balance. It is a bit lazy to my opinion.

  49. I guess I would be of those that has some problem communicating as you state in your article. However, you do not seem to offer any solutions or ideas for some of the folks that are presented with this issue. Would you mind addressing this in your next column. It would be heaven sent to me.

    Thanks Leo, I enjoy all your articles and have archived the ones I can use.


    Solutions really depend on where you are – both physically and in your life. Still in school in the US? Take every English class you can and pay attention (it’s the “one thing I would have done differently” mentioned above). Read, read, read, and then read some more. If you’re a non-native speaker in an English speaking country take those ESL classes, and then spend as much time speaking and interacting with native English speakers. (Pet peeve: those from foreign countries who cloister themselves in communities where they speak and interact in exclusively their native tongue.) Use every excuse you can find to read, speak and exercise your English skills, ideally with native English speakers who can assist you. Locate online resources (Rachel’s English is a great YouTube channel I found some time ago. I’m certain there are more.)

  50. Well said Leo. What you have written should be read by everyone, native speakers, and those learning English. People in governments should also start using English that people can understand, people in in governments speak in gobbledygook because they dare not speak in plain English. I will do my best to spread this article of yours, brilliant.

  51. You couldn’t be more correct. I give technical support (free) on another site and you probably wouldn’t be surprised at the number of questions that begin with “what’s wrong with my code” and no explanation of what it is they want the code to do (sometimes even no code provided). Or “I want to do something sort of like…”. When I used to work for a living I would get requests for custom software (or changes to existing software) by email. My first response was always to write a return email detailing what I thought they wanted and requesting confirmation. I would guess that nine times out of ten I was misinterpreting the request due to lack of clarity on the user’s part.

  52. As an Englishman, brought up by a strict Victorian father who taught us the beauty of the English language, I entirely endorse your article and your wish for greater clarity in the use of the written word.

    My only concern is that the American language, being in such widespread use, is devaluing a lot of the English language’s beauty. I won’t go into detail here as it would be too long a diatribe; I will only mention my particular bete-noire and that is the use of “gotten”. It really grates on my ears because it just doesn’t exist in the English language. Rant over.

    My warmest regards to you and yours for Christmas and the New Year.


  53. B R A V O ! !

    Also, punctuation is important – a comma can save lives !

    “Let’s eat, Grandpa”
    “Let’s eat Grandpa”

    And what does this mean?
    “A woman without her man is nothing”

    “A woman, without her man, is nothing”
    “A woman, without her, man is nothing”

    • A similar old chestnut in this vein:

      Eats shoots and leaves.
      (Something a panda might do when he’s hungry.)


      Eats, shoots, and leaves.
      (Something an angry restaurant patron might do to the waiter.)

  54. Thank you, Leo, for a very fine editorial.

    Clear, effective communication – both written and oral – is essential to human society and culture; without it we only contribute to misunderstanding and chaos.

    Thank you also to Tom Hunn. Well said, sir!

    A short, true, and relevant tale:

    U. S. Navy Vice-Admiral Noel Gayler became one of my greatest heroes during his tenure (1969-1972) as the Director of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA). He sent a six-word memorandum to the agency’s “General” distribution (i.e., every person in the agency). I quote him: “Do not utilize utilize, utilize use.”

    It is one of the best things I saw a Director do during my 32 years at the agency. I chuckle every time I remember it.

    Admiral Gayler was a fine, fine man. He passed away in Alexandria, VA on July 14, 2011.

  55. We taught both our boys that grammar was important so that “People will listen to what say, not how you say it”. Goes for writing, too!

  56. In the UK it is common that at sixteen young people are neither numerate or literate. I.e Unemployable . My GrandMother turfed out children at fourteen who could write in copperplate and could work out £ SD (12ths) in their heads ( I can’t do that ) Eastern Europeans are better educated than we are and are willing to work picking potatoes,despite having a degree. How can a professional teacher eject children from their class room unable to read or write and expect to be paid ? I work in Health Care . We do three heart operations a day . If they all snuffed it then I would expect that there may be some questions !

    It makes me very sad.

  57. I agree, but would add another thought: Friends who got into programming in the early 60’s were also usually good at Latin — I think the analytical aspect of the latter helped translate from English (what needed doing) to Code (how to do it).

    Actually that’s another thing I wished I had done differently. My school offered Latin, and I didn’t take it. In hindsight it would have served me well.


  58. How sad that Google ( google ) have taken it upon themselves to belittle the English language by completely omitting Capital letters and punctuation marks in their search engine. The consequences have had a dramatic effect on peoples use of the gramatic code! This is most noticeable when the zip or post code is now entered by a large percentage of people in lower case. The mail delivery systems were designed to read numerals and upper case letters only.

    I sat for my GCSE English language here in the U.K. when I was 50. I had not passed any exams at school, sad to say.
    I told the tutor I would not be happy if I did not attain a Grade 1 pass, to which she replied, ” Your written work is excellent, so I would expect you will receive a Grade 1 pass. But your spoken English ( after a back to back conversation with another pupil ) will only afford you a Grade 2 pass”. Taken aback, I retorted, “But I didn’t ‘alf try ‘ard miss!”
    Good old fashioned English – no?

  59. In this day and age, it is rather odd the sort of abbreviations that are used……..e.g. u for your, r of are etc.

    But by the same token, I get stumped trying to read some peculiarities.

    One that bugs me, (Winston Churchill once said, ‘never use a long word if you know of a shorter one’

    This is object of this e-mail, and boggles the mind as to why it is even allowed to be used.


    A simple apostrophy!……….E.G. ‘I won&aposte;t’ or something like that. Simply meaning……….a missing ‘o’ in this case! But why go to this trouble and cause confusion? We know what the ‘ is telling us. It is not really a case of saying you should write……………’ I will not’ which is what is meant.

    I left school at the ripe old age of 13, thanks to Herr Hitler, without any further education.

    It annoys me simply because I am deaf, and have to rely on the National Relay Service for communication.

  60. I live in South Africa and am always irritated by the English TV news readers who mispronounce words. There are also the mis-spelled words on the ribbon text at the bottom of the screen that cause me to rant and rave about the education standard in SA being shocking. Their favourite (not USA spelling) one is “loose” instead of “lose” when a team loses a match. If I had hair I’d rip it out.

    • And yet, the wonderful thing about English is, that even when intentionally mangled in this fashion, it can remain comprehensible! 🙂

  61. Interesting that this subject has raised so many comments!

    One significant advantage for the “ESL” community, is that generally they will have been TAUGHT English, rather than picking it up as their native langusge.

    Another is that particularly today, the ESL person probably has chosen to learn English, no matter their reason.

    Regarding the the “live subscripts” scrolling along on TV transmissions, I do sympathise with the Transcrobers, it must be rather like trying to write down Morse Code transmissions.

    During the latter, we were always told not to go back to try to correct during the transmission period, other subsequent important items may be missed.

    As mentioned by others, I found that my knowledge of Latin and French helped indirectly when writing major program suites, eg a complete early Management Information System.

    It also helped during my Apprenticeship when I assisted a Swiss Engineer modify a High Frequency-10 KHz, High Power, rotary generator, used in the process of further refining bullion-quality copper in a vacuum chamber, for later use in the main anode structure of magnetrons, used in radar and virtually every micro-wave cooker today.

    I used (Scottish) English, French and Latin.

    He used Swiss German, Swiss French, Swiss Italian and conversational English.

    The modification was initially stumbling as the generator was wired differently from that assumed as the basis of the modified version.

    So we had to redesign the modification accordingly.

  62. So true – I am a retired IT professional – and entered the field before there were school curriculums in Computer Science. I am also a woman. I found my biggest asset was my ability to communicate – I was an English Major with elementary school teaching background, but a real ability to understand and diagnose computers and what was needed to make them function – and most importntly, I could explain to the top execs what we needed, why, and what they would get for their money. In creating programs I was the one who could speak to the users and also the programming team – to each in language they understood. I could also “teach” users how to get their jobs done using this new tool. English, good simple English is still my greatest secret tool.

  63. Leo, the problem here in the U.K is that schools
    no longer teach english, spoken or written, it’s ok to write as you speak. so incorrect grammer follows incorrect comprehension. frustrating for a engineer, happly retired now.

  64. I am from England and came to the states with a Military husband in 2001. During my years here, I have watched the English language tortured. I’m not sure who is at fault, is it the teaching? You are exactly right in your opinion, you have voiced something I have listened to and watched for years, the shortage of vocabulary, which leads to the inability to communicate and express.
    Thank you Leo 🙂

  65. Leo you are absolutely right on the language point. English is my third language (I grew up with German and French), but I made the experience that a full command of a foreign language is doable. What helps a lot is if you had to learn latin. Then you have easy access to the more sophisticated vocabulary.

    As you advance in a carrer (programming or other), you will have to dedicate more and more time for presentations. And trying to convince your peers and superiors is only possible if you have an excellent command of the language.

  66. Leo, first, thanks for ALL the info you write. With regards to your column today… I can attest to the fact that reading comprehension and writing are THE most important aspects of success. I am an 8th grade dropout, 6 kids by age 26 and retired at age 48! The ability to read and write well was the catalist to continually moving up in the job market. My wife and I always try to impress our grandchildren of the value of your comments. These comments are gold…repeat them often and thanks again.
    Ralph Kuhn

  67. Leo,
    Good article and is very true. I wish to add one other aspect – that of customer service and tech reps who cannot read English. I’ve read other blogs (not yours) where either the full question was not included, or the answer completely missed what was asked.
    Also, I’ve tried expressing the same question in numerous terms, but never got a relative response. Often, especially in the Customer Service arena, people have a set number of prepared responses. If the question does not “fit” the response list, they have no idea how to respond; so they just ignore the inquiry.
    I have a tendency to be verbose. Maybe I could convey my point with:
    It is just as important to know how to READ as it is to WRITE.

  68. You are right, Leo. I’ve been a programmer for over 35 years and you are right.

    When I first read the headline “the most important skill for programmers” I was thinking of ongoing learning and logical thought and goal oriented and ability to learn and … but you hit the nail on the head.

  69. Great article again Leo! It seems it is everywhere now, and tweet and texting do not help the downgrading of our language. But we have been in a slide for some time and it makes me sound old to say how it was back-in-the-day. And then there is … I could go on and on. thanks for saying to a larger audience.

  70. I find that even people who claim that spelling and grammar are important still sometimes manage to miss the boat, and provide a little comic irony. To wit…

    “Spelling and grammar was always easy for me; I think it’s DNA.”

    should be

    “Spelling and grammar were always easy for me; I think it’s DNA.”

    I’ll take this, as you said, as “comic irony”, but indeed my article isn’t about this level of detail. Yes, it’s important, but real problem I’m looking to get people to focus on is a much larger and much more basic. I’d be thrilled if all we had to worry about was was/were, its/it’s and so on. Smile


  71. Bravo, Leo! Well stated!

    Words carry a lot of weight, and their users truly are judged by how well they use them. It happens every day and every where. Your ability to communicate says more about you than anything else.

  72. If you have three languages, you are tri-lingual. Two, and you are bi-lingual. Only one, and you are English…

    As a Brit, I worked in Turkey with ex-patriates from Jordan, USA, Egypt, Pakistan and Germany. The Contract was bi-lingual, Turkish & English. so these expat colleagues were all fluent in English – and their own tongue(s), and Arabic, and some also in Turkish.

    I told my Turkish colleagues that it wouldn’t do me much good to learn Turkish (though I did anyway), but that I would converse with them only in English, to help them with that language, which would help them in the future (arrogant bastard). I also helped out at a local “TEFL” school, although untrained.

    One challenge, though, is that the Turks had learned English from a Turk who had learned English from a Turk, who had…. i.e. the English they spoke was usually at least sixth hand ! They knew it was right, for that’s how they had been taught !

    One Egyptian colleague (previously a lecturer at Cairo University) told how one of his University colleagues had a very high reputation for the standard of his English – he had published many Papers in English – and his colleagues always referred any English problems to him. But (my colleague reported) his *spoken* English was totally unintelligible ! He pronounced it as spelt.

    When Turkey adopted the “Western” alphabet, they had to introduce six more letters to their alphabet, and in this way, every letter is ALWAYS pronounced in exactly the same way. Three of these extras are vowels – an un-dotted i, and o and u with umlauts. In other words, Turkish has eight vowel sounds. English, on the other hand, has (I gather) forty four different vowel sounds, represented by only five vowels.

    Say this sentence aloud, and notice how your mouth changes from a horizontal line (a smile) to a tight round circle and back again, each word has a slightly different vowel sound – and this is only nineteen of the 44!


    Practice these, for there will be a test next period.

  73. Leo, your English is very clear, to me. I enjoy reading your articles because you make it clear. Here is my pet peeve, when you ask a clearly, yes or no question, five minute later they are still trying to explain why their answer, (which you haven’t gotten yet) isn’t answered yet.

    In defense of whomever is answering that yes or no question (and in case it was me Smile):

    Many of what we think are yes or no questions don’t have yes or no answers. For example: can I run Mac OS on a PC? If all I can say is yes or no, then I have to say yes. However you walk away with a VERY misleading answer. Why? Because while it can be done, it’s very difficult, possibly problem-ridden, and even of questionable legality. (Search the web for “Hackintosh”.) Forcing yes or no, or stopping as soon as you read yes or no often bypasses critical information.

    So I absolutely do find myself preceding the answer with an explanation. An explanation that hopefully clarifies the yes or no that follows, and why even a technical yes may really be a practical no.

    Computers are incredibly complex. They may only think in terms of 0 and 1, but questions about them are rarely anywhere near that simple

  74. Noting Robin’s comment about Turkish and the addition of six more letters, I wonder how many are aware that at least three letters have disappeared from the English alphabet-

    My lady-wife is Cymraeg (Welsh) whilst I am Scottish, so I am very aware of the apparent doubled “ll” in Cymraeg and its pronunciation, as in “llan”.

    Also the difference in its pronunciation between North Wales and South Wales, in the south the “ll” tends to be softer than in the north.

    When my wife says “hospital”, I can hear undertones of the Welsh, “ysbyty”.

    Many years back, I worked with a Basque engineer from France, Monsieur Lloret, pronounced approximately as “flow-ray”. (To confuse matters, his colleague, also French, was Monsieur Schmidt, general expectation being that the latter would be German.)

    Shortly after that, I taught a specialised (specialized?) subject to a class consisting of-

    2 Irani,
    3 Iraqi,
    1 Scottish,
    1 English,
    1 Indonesian.

    The Tower of Babel?

  75. An excellent article & so, so true. Unfortunately in today’s world many native English speakers have never been trained properly & many are not even interested. Those that sit exams are taught how to pass those exams rather than subject itself. Watching English TV is often quite embarrassing when one hears such poor English being used especially when compared with many foreigners who often speak English very well. Again in today’s world, the English grammar is sneered at, yet those that sneer often have little ability in anything else. It’s about time more attention was given to the subject in those learning years.

    I recall one friend of mine when in the British Royal Navy standing in front of the Officer Selection board. He was asked to describe to the board “How to blow up the tires on a bicycle”. Not as easy as you might think but deemed a necessary question in order to establish the candidate’s ability to explain a task….any task. I suspect fewer could pass that test today.
    Note. I live in a non English speaking country.

    • Sorry to be irrelevant to the topic, but I simply can’t help myself:

      How to blow up the tires on a bicycle.

      “When in doubt… C4.”
      –Jamie Hyneman,

  76. I participate pretty regularly on Yahoo! Answers and routinely encounter the same frustration: people who seem to need help but who have not asked a question in a way that is at all intelligible. I mostly follow the technology-related topics, but the same thing happens in every area: someone who presumably believes that he or she has asked a “simple” question, but has not given enough information or has mangled the grammar so badly that I don’t know where to begin to answer.

    I once had an assignment in my High School English class: to pick any task and write clear, precise instructions for that task. The teacher then selected a student who was not the author and read the instructions to that student, who was to follow them exactly as written. The assumptions that people make when they express themselves were revealed, often in hilarious ways. For example, many students opt to describe how to make a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, but may forget to include an instruction to remove the lid on the jelly jar, or the “final assembly” instructions are not clear and the sandwich ends up with the sticky stuff on the outside. I did not know then that I would end up in a career in computer programming, but when I did; I realized that this was one of the most valuable classes and lessons in my preparation for what I do.

  77. Dear Leo,

    I nearly stood up and cheered very loudly after reading this article.

    I am British born and educated. I have an Oxford degree in classics (i.e. Greek and Latin) and in a week’s time shall celebrate my eighty-seventh birthday. All this makes me in many people’s opinion an old codger with the most contemptibly out-dated ideas, but – believe me – every word of your splendid article should be taken to heart.

    Every word, without qualification.

    I have probably spent more of my almost indecently long life in struggling with with the poor English of native English speakers than in any other occupation except, perhaps, eating and drinking. While I’m sure that English is a difficult language to learn – and my German-born wife assures me that it is, though her own command of it is excellent – it has become almost a lingua franca, so that a huge number of people across the world need it to earn a living. Many of them are arrogantly sure of their command of it . Many manufacturers in an international market pack their products with instruction leaflets apparently written in , say, Japanese translated into pigeon English by, perhaps, a Bulgarian. I do not denigrate either of these languages. It is simply the case that knowing the rules of English is necessary for the writing, speaking and understanding of English. Some English-born English speakers are equally arrogant in that they too fail to learn these rules. They are foolish. All languages are tools for communication, which may fail if the rules are ignore or misunderstood

    Incidentally, learning Latin is a very useful, though unfashionable, way to learn English – for English native speakers!

    Leo, your article is an enormous public service.

  78. At a small upstate New York college I was waiting for my first conference with my freshman English professor. I had little to worry about as I had been in advanced English courses in high school.

    He called me in and I sat at his desk noticing the red pencil marks all over my work.

    I squirmed visibly, and he finally looked up and said, “Mister Phillips, I am not going to ask you how you got into college but how you got out of high school?”

    I stammered, not realizing it was not a question.

    As I dropped my eyes to study the designs in the carpet, he further stated that if I wished to embarrass myself for the rest of my life with misspellings and horrible grammar that was up to me.

    But, (in his course) I will learn how to use the written word to say what I am trying to explain. He then read aloud some of my work and asked me if that was what I was trying to say.

    Now as an old man I often think this was the best advice I ever received.

    -bnp (on the most important skill)

  79. I’d like to add one sub-topic to “ability to communicate”, and that is “using the correct terminology”. While one would hardly expect your auto mechanic to know what you mean if you tell him the “whatchamacallit” is making strange noises, many people can’t understand why their computer tech doesn’t understand what they mean by “the little picture thingy”.

    Or, worse, using a correct name, but of the wrong part.

    Case in point… My wife was trying to help someone who posted a “new hard drive wanted” notice. After several back-and-forths, trying to determine the type (IDE? SATA? SCSI?) by describing the connectors, and the size of the drive he wanted, a simple statement made by the poster — that he just wanted a new “hard drive” to plug into his “Dell monitor” — it became clear that what he really wanted was an entire new computer. (And, of course, he had the nerve to blame my wife for “wasting” *his* time.)

    Yep, I get those all the time. The one that I get frequently is “CPU” referring to the desktop computer box – e.g. as in your case “the computer”. The CPU is only one tiny part inside that box, not the box itself.

  80. David said:

    I recall one friend of mine when in the British Royal Navy standing in front of the Officer Selection board. He was asked to describe to the board “How to blow up the tires on a bicycle”. Not as easy as you might think but deemed a necessary question in order to establish the candidate’s ability to explain a task….any task. I suspect fewer could pass that test today.

    I suppose that a proper answer to that might start “first, place small amounts of C4, evenly distributed around the rim…” 🙂

    Yep, my mind went in that direction too. Smile

  81. Very interesting. I use proper grammar and speak, write, and understand English very well. What I don’t comprehend are the words in “English” that appear on a screen, in a book, or spoken verbally as to the use of a computer. JPG, modem, pixcels(?), mega-bites, etc. I just as well might be illiterate when it comes down to computers because for the most part I can never get an answer “understandable” to Me. I don’t live in “Computer World”..and really can’t understand why other’s do..but why can’t somebody speak in simple terms about a computer question? I’ll show one how to maintain, service and run a Brigg’s and Stratton if one tells Me how to get My pictures on the computer from My phone !

    Every technology has its own set of specific terms. Even your Briggs and Stratton has enough terms associated with it that are totally incomprehensible to otherwise proper English speaking folks that simply happen not to be well versed in small engine design and components (like me!). And you’ll find that those terms are required to communicate properly about topics involving that engine’s internals. Computers are no different. This is also where the internet and search engines are your friend. Search for the terms you don’t understand and you’ll get a plethora of explanations and definitions. Once you find a site that explains things to your satisfaction, check there first the next time you need to look something up. Heck, Google will even correct your spelling to “pixels” when you type it in incorrectly as “pixcels”.

    • The existence of jargon is hardly limited to computer. Every major field of interest will have its own selection of technical terms — and sometimes they can even be contradictory!

      For example — in playing a game, is getting a “strike” good or bad? That depends on whether you’re playing bowling or baseball!

      The term “disorderly motion” will mean something quite different to a physicist, a cop, and a parliamentarian!

      Computers are no different — you have to learn the lingo to understand what’s being said.

  82. To English: Thirteen years ago Tech Boy decided Mom should buy a pc, even though I couldn’t imagine what I would do with one. : ) He promised he would always keep it going for me, no worries, and off to the store we went. He gave me a small Windows for Dummies book that was completely worthless to me: while very simply and concisely written, it may as well have been written in Chinese. What good are explanations if one has never been exposed to the terms used in them? I didn’t want him to think I was too dumb even for a Dummies book, so I tried typing a term into a search engine…..and an entire world opened up to me. To this day I’m in awe of what’s available.
    My point is you would have better luck talking to someone who REMEMBERS what it’s like to know zero about computers and smart phones. He/she should be able to help you, while speaking in non-technical terms. I often help seniors with basic pc and phone issues, writing up simple cheat sheets they can reference later. My late Dad was an outdoors guy, could still build and maintain anything that ran, and was a voracious reader. In his eighties, he was too busy living what was left of his life to spend the time learning new technologies, as much as they interested him. By the time he passed I had him using a nice digital camera, cell phone, pc and printer using cheat sheets for only those things he was interested in doing. He never learned a technical term, and his life was no less richer for it. Leo has my permission to give you my email address if you’d like to contact me.

  83. Well said: a timely comment on the failure of the educational systems in the US and GB to teach their pupils that effective communication requires the use of the correct syntax, terminology and spelling – just like writing good code.

  84. Well put! This is a well-written article about a wide-spread problem in the United States. I have nothing to add as you stated it succinctly.

  85. leo as australian with 2 of 6 grandchildren dutch they speak better english than i do and find other non english people same i note some dictionaries have slang something australians inclined use and computer jargon age now 82 only just understanding computers more about english computer style and my own bad points use of language computer or normal english hope you understand keep on learning

  86. I always find it funny that we live in “the age of communication” but we can’t communicate other than with the LAO’s and BRB’s. We’re getting to the point the ancient Cro-magnon had a higher degree of language sophisitcation and communication skills.

    I am a university mathematics instructor and Thom Higgins is wrong on one very important point. English is vital if you’re going to understand mathematics and science. You see, if we do not have the means of communicating the concepts that are mathematical or scientific, then where are we as a society? We are where we are as a society now. One vitally important ramification of this is who we elect to our public offices.

    You would be amazed at what I see as ‘written English’ in my math courses; it’s not about numbers. Students coming from our government schools are far more functionally illiterate than when I entered college in the 70’s. So I quite agree with Leo, the questions and presentations are wholly unintelligible. I see them and all I can do is my part in educating them on their so called English. This should have been accomplished by the time they reach the college level. Student’s basically know what they want to say but do not have the basic tools with which to do so.

    I say most of this comes from the government schools over the years de-emphasizing the three R’s at the expense of multiculturalism, ecology (even though they have no understanding of basic biology) and political correctness. In fact, most of my students have difficulty with the basics of MS Office and doing simple things like email attachments or cell math.

    I believe this is what our government intended and in my opinion they have near completed their goals. We have a nation that knows little about the Constitution and as such can be easily manipulated.

  87. Thanks Leo for your most interesting article. Your frequent use of apostrophes brings to mind a very common problem – the difference in meaning between “you’re and your” , the apostrophe here used in your article to indicate an abbreviation. Similarly with the use in Rick Mathematic’s item (my use here to indicate ownership) – the difference between “student’s and students”. The apostrophe incorrectly used here to indicate more than one student.

    Perhaps, we should have a crib sheet somewhere with these common errors listed. My experience in higher education has highlighted these common problems to me. There are also the many pitfalls of English spelling e.g. acommodate, accomodate, accommodate – choose any one from these three. I think it would be a very big crib sheet.


  88. Most respectfully submitted: In American English, commas and periods are always placed INSIDE the quotation marks. There are no exceptions to this rule. Thus, your sentence above should read, My process has evolved over the years to “write, publish, edit.”

    This is one of those cases where the logician in me vehemently disagrees with that practice (the period is not part of what’s being quoted), so I choose to disregard that rule. Apparently I’m a rebel.

  89. Well said, Leo. This has been one of my rants for several years now. I’m so grateful I am no longer in a position of having to interview and hire employees–the poor communication skills make you want to tear your remaining hair out! This is a society-wide problem; not limited to the IT world by any means. If you believe that the way a person speaks or writes is a window on how they think, we are in serious trouble!

  90. Thank you!
    I’m constantly amazed and annoyed by the inability of people to speak and write in English.
    The most annoying is the use of “I” and “me”.
    The number 2 annoying usage is “fun” and “funner”!!!
    College graduates do not use the above examples correctly.
    News commentators are just as bad.
    What happened?
    Let’s you and me be funner!

  91. December 29, 2012

    “The Most Important Skill”. Thank you Leo for that article. I am constantly plagued by people that cannot speak or write correctly. I see it everyday. My concern is that are people just lazy or that proper language skills are not being taught anymore. Kudos

  92. Hi Leo,
    Just a quick & sincere thank you for the courage – and care for the world – you’ve shown in writing the above “off the topic” article on the critical necessity to master English, or, rather, the necessity to communicate properly; the latter is the key issue, of course.
    I, really, greatly lament the poor communication prevalent in the world today. Driven by tech?
    Not necessarily.
    Personally, I believe the importance of the correct use of, and, understanding of “language” is the key – the real core source of this problem of communication. And, to your point, the need to master English as a global language.
    Simply, people are not made to understand the dire, critical necessity of needing to communicate properly, driven out of respect for one another, for the world.
    It’s that simple, methinks.
    So, kudos to you, Leo, for braving this topic. I deeply respect you using your forum for this.
    An awesome 2013 to you!

  93. So well said Leo. I was born in India and came to the U.K. as a 10 year old.My mother tongue has always been English. I’m now 63.I work in retail in a large store in Tech support selling tablets, computers, etc. I often feel like banging my head against a brick wall when a “native” English speaker is trying to ask me for help and as you said, I have to second guess. Yes I get it wrong sometimes and then I end up feeling the fool .especially when the customer then says that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
    I really get annoyed when reading comments on Facebook and try to work out what’s actually being said and the use of words like” to” for “too” and “brought” for “bought” and vice versa. etc. etc. Some of my extended family speak in “Street Language” and I just cannot understand them and have to ask my wife for an explanation. God help me.
    Your “little rant” has been mine for a long time and I completely agree with every thing you said.
    My rant over,feels good to have written it down. A Happy New Year to you and keep up the good work.

  94. Well, it’s really impressive to read… Thank you for this really brave diatribe!
    So, I’m not alone… I frequently have to manage interns from engineers schools. They spend here some months, learn a lot of things – I hope – do some job and write down a final report (thesis) for their graduating exam.
    There lies the greatest part of the time I have to spend with these students… In order to achieve a good document – understandable, at least – I have to work with them and help them rewriting whole parts of their report!
    I wonder, when they’ll be graduated engineers, how will they communicate with the rest of the world, if they’re plainly unable to coin a correct phrase…
    Frightening, no?
    Oh, by the way, I live in France. But this educational problem is exactly the same here!
    Kind regards, dear Leo.

  95. As applicable to speaking as it is to writing, my business email signature:

    We should not write so that it is possible for the reader to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us. -Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus), rhetorician (c. 35-100)

  96. Thanks for your rant. Well said. I started my career teaching reading and writing one-on-one to adults returning to college and to under-privileged high school seniors. What a I learned was this: One cannot expect someone to write better if the person is unable to read well, because the individual cannot know what to improve. Even if the person takes the time to edit, poor reading makes it impossible to notice the error requiring editing.

  97. [Thank you for correcting my typo above !]

    I have written a number of papers that I have presented at international conferences. I preface my presentation with something along the lines of “Please don’t mind if you think that this presentation sounds simple – I always try to explain things simply, in the hope that even I can understand what I’m saying.” 😉

  98. Very well said Leo, and I do really understand where you are coming from even though my natural tongue is, and always was, English. I too am frequently dismayed by very poor usage of the language, particularly in “world class” books, magazines and newspapers. These are quite possibly a very large part of the problem.

    I do believe however that “English language skill” cannot be the prime ability that one should possess. The ability to communicate must come second to the ability to empathize, to have patience and understanding in trying to comprehend and relate to someone else.

    A favourite (notice the proper “British” spelling) adage of mine, which came from North American Indian culture, is: “In order to understand a person, you must walk a mile in their shoes!” You have described a little about what it is like to walk in your shoes, as have many of the persons who have left comments and have emphathized with you based upon similar experiences.

    Maybe the best way to put this in perspective would be to ask you “How would you relate to a person like Stephen Hawking (yes the famous one) if he did not have electro-mechanical devices to synthesize speech? Now consider how many others have similar and other impediments affecting your ability to comprehend, regardless of language.

    The only good thing I derive from your essay, and which I hope was not missed by your readers, was the statement that “you do try to comprehend the question being asked”, even though there are times when you are in left field with your response. Based upon that comment on your part, I do believe you emphathize with your questionner as much as time permits. Hopefully, your questionner rarely does not return the favour!

    Best and prosperous New Year to you and yours and all your readers.


    A. J. Peter Wall

  99. I completely agree with you and it appears that you are echoing my thoughts regarding the importance of English and the importance of effective communication!

    Some of the guides in MS Office and Windows 7 and 8 are so poorly written that I try to send Microsoft feedback regarding the poor English (unintelligible). Unfortunately, my comments are read by the same people who created the problems in the first place. These people are incapable of thinking in English. “Translated Indian languages” don’t work when they are translated verbatim into English.

    The problem lies in the fact that a large group of foreign born programmers ‘think’ that they know English. With this type of thinking, the mind shuts itself off to any new learning.

    I shall cite one example. In Windows 7, there is a reference to “Backup and Restore Control Panel”. This means that there is a Control Panel for Backup and Restore. That is not the case. What the foreign born guy meant was “Control Panel, Backup and Restore”. Unfortunately he (or she) is incapable of understanding the difference in terminology. Spell Check will not catch these errors; neither will Grammar Check.

    BTW the same error has been carried forward to Windows 8 (Win 7 File Recovery)

  100. Three cheers, Leo, for a wonderful article. I’m saddened by what appears to be a lack of basic language and math skills in our young people.

  101. Congratulations – a very good article. I don’t have too many problems with the occasional, or even frequent mistake in written English as long as the mistake doesn’t interfere with the intended meaning to a significant degree.

    There is a proviso to my opinion however in that I’m referring to those who have English as a second language. The efforts of the native speakers who write poorly are given the flick into the rubbish bin.

    My favourite hate are spell-checkers which recognise only American English, a term which is almost oxymoronic at present and destined to be so in the future. It’s a form of English that I believe has evolved to cater for those who have neither the intelligence or desire to learn how to live with a rich and beautiful language. It is bastardry at its best (or worst).

  102. A valuable lesson was taught to me by Ron Blicq (Technically Write) whose guiding principle was to get to the point as quickly as possible and then provide details if necessary. He said that every business/technical correspondence should start with “I want to tell you that…”, followed by the main point. Then the first six words should be removed before sending.

    By the same token, when answering a yes/no question, the reply should start with one of “yes”, “no”, “yes, but”, or “no, but”, followed by an appropriate explanation.

    While I agree in principal, my experience is that too many people stop reading as soon as they read the “yes” or “no”, regardless of the presence of a “but” or any further explanation. They then often leave with a complete misunderstanding of the answer. Hence I often choose to preface the answer with an explanation. Yes, that means some people will not read the whole thing, but in my opinion leaving because you got no answer is actually better than leaving with the wrong answer.


  103. That’s interesting, Leo. Much of the content in your newsletters is way over my head. I would normally pass over questions that don’t interest me, but your prefaces themselves pique my interest and in I go. I may not be able to follow the entire answer, but I always learn at least something…..

  104. Leo, you’ve hit upon a subject that is near and dear to my heart. As a tech support person in Second Life, I help people from all over the world, daily, and often receive unintelligible questions. When this happens I usually check the person’s profile to see if it is an ESL issue, and guess what? The vast majority come from people who list English as their first language. Ironically, people who list languages other than English as their first language often write the most clear and concise questions, in English.

    As you may know, Second Life is almost entirely composed of user-created content, and much of that content is scripted in order to animate it, change its looks, etcetera. And there are many fine scripters in SL. These scripts are written in LSL code, which is a language, and what is more, a language which must be written perfectly in order to function. However, I am often heard to mutter (not where they can hear it, of course) that it is amazing to me that people who can write such great code often cannot string three words together into an intelligible sentence.

    Incidentally, I encounter many Dutch people in Second life, and most often they speak and write very good English. (And some very good code as well.) Did you know that the people of the Netherlands have the highest average IQ in the world? Apparently you come from good stock. 🙂

  105. Every trade and profession has its own nomenclature, from auto mechanics to medicine,rocket science to music. Since computers are so new to all of us it’s hardly surprising that some misinterpretation occurs in linguistics. Who outside of the in-group knows what a URL is? HTML? On the other hand, what’s a tribeculoplasty? An iridotomy? What is a truncated cadenza? Pentimento? Chiaroscuro? Or for that matter, what’s blowby? A little tutoring patience is wanted in any new field. Your doctor speaks plain English. Musicians don’t know how but computer programmers are learning.

  106. I’m the IT guy at a community mental health center – we hire people-people, not geeks. I train incoming users to be skeptical of spam, etc. I point out that one of the most common traits of spam is poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Since I am the one who sends out e-mails from IT warning about this and that, I tell them I want them to know it is really from me (rather than a spoofed ‘System Administrator). I point out that my writing style is inimitable, as I use humor – a lot of folks tell me that whenever they get an e-mail from me, they read it immediately; they know it will make them laugh. And I also train our folks to expect that my e-mails will have perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If they do see an error, they should tell me about it, I want to learn.

    I remember my 8th grade English teacher, Miss Tilly. She was somewhat grim and imposing, but here I am, 50 years later, saying she made a good mark on my life. Spelling counts!

  107. Leo,

    Your article is excellent. It should be on a Required Reading list in all schools.

    We appreciate all the help you give, thank you so much.


  108. About the only thing worse than reading e-mails from clients that use poor grammar is reading the e-mails that my *boss* sends out to our clients, with poor grammar and spelling. (And “their/there/they’re” is just the tip of the iceberg.)

  109. One problem that leads to poor workforce literacy, in my opinion, is the emphasis in U.S. English classes on literature rather than nonfiction. It does wonders for the creative soul, and it introduces the great themes, but it doesn’t lead to the ability to function efficiently in a technology-based society.

  110. Hello Leo….

    Nice article and I completely agree with you. Communication in your “native language” (in this case English) is extremely important and by fare, vital in any profession you might exercise. I should know, Spanish is my “native language” while English is my second. I’ve had to push myself to learn and expand my vocabulary in English just like I do in Spanish and that has taken me a considerable time (I’m 63 yrs old) and still do even today. So, yes, communication, no matter what language, is a necessary and vital tool for everyone and in all aspects of our lives. One other thing, thanks God for “spell check”… I use it in both languages.

    Have a good day and hope to hear from you soon,

    George Melendez
    Humacao, Puerto Rico

  111. In the words of Pope, you convey “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”. Clarity is of the essence. If the questioner expects you to spend your valuable time on his question, he should phrase it properly, and not expect you to untangle a jumble of lower case, text speak, unpunctuated gobbledy-gook.

  112. It’s true for some aspects of programming but not all. For example, if you’re programming modules in SAP, then it’s really useful to have some knowledge of German. Why? Because the product is German and all the field names are abbreviations of German words that mean something to German-speakers (such as FERT, short for FERTIG or READY in English).

  113. First of all, let me say THANK YOU for all the advice and expertise you have dispensed on this website. Between you, and some of the similar sites you’ve recommended, I’ve learned so much over the last few years. And I agree that the ability to communicate effectively (or lack, thereof) is a key component in the frustration level I feel each day. You see, I am in charge of computer repair and maintenance at a small K-12 school. The number one problem reported to me: “My computer doesn’t work.” That’s it! No explanation, no detail, just “My computer doesn’t work.” You’d think TEACHERS could/would communicate more effectively. By the way, the number one problem I “fix” each day? Failure to respond to a dialog box, or unplugged equipment!

    • “…the number one problem I ‘fix’ each day? Failure to respond to a dialog box…”

      When I try to teach my elderly mother how to use our computer, one of the things I try to emphasize is, “Look at the screen — it’s trying to tell you what you should do next.”

      ( My next most frequent phrase is, “Scroll bars, Mom… scroll bars,” said good-naturedly.) 🙂

  114. Leo,
    For many years, I was an engineer with GE and I made more money for our service group because I could do something that a lot of people can’t – simple, read. Read the manuals and read the drawings, companies spend a great deal of effort in this regard and at the end of the day, it is part of communicating.

  115. I’ve been a regular reader of your column, Leo, for several years, and I’ve appreciated your clear and precise discussions of computer issues. I’ve learned a lot from your posts, which is why I keep reading them. Because I teach English, I naturally I agree 100% with your emphasis on good communication skills. I’m going to show your column to my students. I’m sure they’ll benefit from seeing how much value you place on a high level of writing ability. Thank you for another excellent column.

  116. Leo, this is an excellent commentary on a major problem that I have seen time and time. In my role as a programmer/report designer/database designer, poor communication is a primary reason for the failure of a project to meet requirements upon delivery. I will say, it is not only poor language use, but also, poor thinking, from the aspect of omissions – leaving unsaid what should have been communicated. When that happens, we may try, as you say, to infer or assume things, and we often get it wrong. Therefore, again, as you say, we have to ask questions about the questions asked of us.

    In another role of mine, that of moderator of a very large community email list, I am often appalled at many of the poorly worded postings that come to our message queue. One thing I see repeatedly are postings that could be construed in either of two ways, because the subscriber simply never checked to see if what they wrote actually agreed with their intent. Since we can’t tell what their intent was either, we delete or reject the postings.

    A comment left about your article by another individual was that people will often write to a technical support staff member saying “My computer doesn’t work”, and no more. That tells us one of two things about the writer of such a vague statement: a)they are unwilling to take the time to fully explain a problem, and simply want somebody else to figure it out, or b)they don’t understand that communicating more fully will give them a better end result. Either way, it is quite frustrating.

    Ultimately, people have to see that their poor writing/communication skills are to their detriment in order to fix the problem. If it wastes your own time, or hits your own wallet, perhaps that is the incentive needed to communicate better.

  117. Thank you for another good article Leo, I have read your articles for years and they have helped me with many computer problems. I spent years as a technical trainer for a major retail firm. One of my jobs was to answer customers questions and handle technical complaints. I didn’t have the choice of which customers I helped and which I ignored as you seem to imply that you do in this article. Don’t get me wrong I sometimes would have to ask other employees to help me understand a customer because or that customers ability to communicat their question, but I don’t remember ever turning a customer away. I was once told there are no stupid questions, just stupid answers. A question asked by a large portion of your readers may not sound as stupid to them as it does to you or the highly educated among your readers. I realize you are probably swamped with questions and don’t have time to answer all questions, but descriminating against a lesser educated reader isn’t speaking too well of you, change the name to for english majors only.

    • There’s nothing in my discussion that implies that I think these questions are stupid and not worthy of answering. My point – my only point – is that if I can’t understand the question I can’t answer it. Generalizing that the implication is that people who cannot express themselves clearly in their native language are at a serious disadvantage in many, many venues. (And yes, I do state, repeatedly, that I cannot answer all questions. And yes, absolutely, a clearly stated question is more likely to get answered than an indecipherable one.)

  118. There is a good reason that English is hard to learn. It contains words, spellings and grammatical constructs from many languages including Celtic, French, German, Latin, Greek, Norse languages, Indian languages from the days of the Raj – it’s not surprising there are inconsistencies in many aspects of the language. Henry VIII recognised this and had the language simplified – and that introduced many other quirks like “fast” meaning “moving quickly” and “completely immobile…”

    But being aware of it does not make English any more logical, less frustrating or easier to learn.

  119. The ability to speak English is important. Those who lived in Europe were exposed to a number of Classic Languages when they were younger and learned them almost fluently. So the ability to read and write fluently ANY language is necessary in this day and age.

  120. Have you tried to understand instructions for many products written in Chinglish …one has to smile at the contorted grammar.

  121. Great article. Sadly, many native English speakers do not write clearly.

    I measure the readability of turgid text using the MS Word tool. The record so far is the one-paragraph sentence below. It came from a promotional website.

    The Flesch Reading Ease test score is zero! Flesch Kincaid Grade Level Test gives grade 34!

    “Predicated on the understanding that XXXX YYYY is a world leader focusing on the measurement of the patient experience, and that the institute is recognized as an important source of information, advice and support, the Board of Directors of XXXX YYYY Inc. support the advancement of the science through a variety of programs, awards and related research, each of which focuses entirely on fostering a continued improvement in healthcare from the patient’s perspective.”

  122. thank you for a great true article. i found all of the comments very interesting. one thing i would like to state. if you are blind, and you don’t know or use braille, you are illiterate, yes, illiterate. it effects your coommunication ability, your writing ability. if you are blind, and you only listen to books in recorded format, and you can’t read and write braille, that’s a terrible. now i’m not denegrating the value of recorded books. they are fabulous. i use them all of the time. however, i’m very glad i can read and write braille fluently. braille is being taught less and less in the united states today. this is a huge ongoing tragic problem.

  123. Hi Leo, You sure fooled me as I thought English was your native language but when I looked at your last name I gave it a second thought on that question. Your English is good and wish I knew Dutch as I get power points from a friend of mine who is dutch and everything is in Dutch.

    Your article was very good as if your English is poor how in the world can you understand someones question ?? English is a hard language and I have put up with it for over 65 years and counting but one item I think is hilarious is when people say he has cancer of the prostrate !!

    Leo, if you can still read Dutch you would enjoy those power points my friend sends me as they are very nice and I throw out the X rated ones and have kept over 1,000 of the nice ones.

    Good article Leo and keep up the good work as English can be tough at times and I forgot to tell you I have never gotten cancer by lying flat !! Another problem people create when it comes to computers they ask questions and do not give enough information such as what OS do you use ? and what model computer and so forth or who is your I.S.P. ?

    Anyone that understands this know that 2 bits, 4 bits , 6 bits, and all…… can finish it.

  124. My work email signature includes this quote by Quintilian: “We should not write so that it is possible for the reader to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.”

    Bravo, Leo – yours is an article everyone should read!

  125. The disadvantage native English speaking people have is that they can’t cope with common mistakes people who learned to speak English use to make.

    If somebody asks you for the “snake” you most probably know he means a hose. Natives don’t.
    An advantage of Dutch; you can read at least four North European languages.
    And speak them too when you’re a bit intoxicated.

    But the main problem, as indicated in the topic, is that people don’t re-read their remarks and ask themselves the one question: Did I express myself and can someone else understand what I mean?
    You can’t change that if they don’t.

  126. Case in point (’nuff said):
    Dev 24 Dec 2012 Reply

    Ha ha ha, i remember my old day’s when my mom used to say learn English, and i was always curious why English is important, because my mom don’t know even, why so, thank you Leo for the beautiful article.

  127. Leo,
    While I agree that writing & communication are so important in any business or technical profession; more importantly, computer programming requires logical & abstract thinking abilities that allow one to understand ideas & concepts and to arrange them into computer objects and program logic.
    I learned communication skills (they were not easy for me); but I found I have natural programming skills that some people just can not learn.

  128. Knowing how to read and write clear and precise English, not to mention a bit of Greek and German, made it possible for my Art History & Archeology major daughter to fine a good, entry level job with a law firm and a few years later to walk up the street a few blocks and get a $10,000 per year raise at a major corporation. Many raises later, she is doing well. Literacy counts. Big time.

  129. There seems to be two problems.
    1) The use of proper English words and grammar
    2) The use of enough words to adequately convey a thought

    English speakers use different dialects in different locations. Even in England there are differences between what is spoken in different parts of the country. In the English speaking Caribbean, there is great variation between the different islands. A properly educated student should be able to WRITE proper English, even if he SPEAKS dialect with his friends.

    The bigger communication problem Leo seems to have identified is really the second issue. A person may use perfectly good English words and grammar but simply not say enough to explain their problem, therefore making it difficult to provide an adequate solution.

    I participate in a few Help Forums, and there are many one line questions which really cannot be answered without asking for more information regarding the problem.

    • Ah, but beware — mere verbosity is not the cure here, either. And while the problem of poor communication finds its expression in all fields, it is particularly vexing in computer tech support, where detail and precision are both necessary for the diagnosis of any computer problem.

  130. An excellent article – thanks, Leo. My sentiments totally. I’ve often been turned away from a good article by poor English – particularly wrong/missing punctuation, with missing apostrophes being one of the worst examples. Also using a comma to join two sentences together instead of a full stop. In many cases a dash (–) or semicolon (;) is a good alternative. Finally, I wish to take strong exception to the use of the blasphemous expression “OMG” by Captain Jerry. He should know better seeing the date on his article is Christmas Day! Also I believe that you, Leo, have an obligation to your readers to edit this web-site. This is a Christian country (or was!) and still has a large population of regular Christians. Even if Captain Jerry doesn’t have these beliefs himself, he should respect those who do. Four-letter swear-words would no doubt be replaced by **** – how much worse is reducing the name of the Creator to a swear-word? Hope you will take this constructively, Leo. Your site is really terrific and good language (in all senses of the word!) is greatly appreciated. Many thanks.

    • Many people in this country are indeed Christian. That does not make this “a Christian country.” Our nation was founded upon, and still respects today, principles of religious tolerance. Many people here are not Christian. Our great country has Muslims, Buhddists, and even Neo-Pagans and Wiccans! If Captain Jerry wants to say “OMG,” that is nobody’s business but his own, Sir. If you do not choose to read his “OMG,” why, that is nobody’s business but your own. Meanwhilr, kindly leave the rest of us out of it.

  131. You are right on point. Throughout my career (ending as a CIO), it is clear that communicating in writing and orally is so critical that that thought should be written in flaming letters.

  132. Dear Leo,

    You have succinctly said the importance of clear expression which definitely leads to a clear reply. Absence of/lack of clarity wastes valuable time in understanding the query, inferring something out of it just to help. Being a legal advisor, I understood clarity of expression requires clarity of thought. This also requires one to know what the problem exactly is. Unless you pose your question with relevant information, efforts in deciphering would be waste of time and, as you said, sometimes it may result into another problem.

  133. Your excellent comment on the importance of English proficiency as a prerequisite to success in all technical fields needs wider distribution.
    I was lucky as I had a phenomenal background in English and composition in high school. College at MIT and Tulane required little in the English/Communication area. What was required was trivial for me. As a senior I had one elective (non-engineering) to take and I selected a senior/graduate course in the English Dept. It was called, “Literature Since 1918”. My adviser said, “I have checked and no one from this department has ever taken a course like this. That said, I see no reason why you can’t take that course.”
    So I took the course and I made an “A”.

    Perhaps that helped me to write proposals and brochures for a small start-up company. In any case we bagged two contracts for design, development and production of two instrumentation packages for the Saturn S1-C under contract from Boeing. For that effort we were awarded, “Small Contractor of the Year” by the SBA.
    I’m now retired, age 73, but still keep up to date.
    Off the subject a bit, but this is important for engineers. Soon after graduation one is qualified to register as a “Professional Engineer”. It is usually a state-by-state thing and many EE’s don’t bother. WRONG. I ignored that and am now retired. Today I could make a few bucks reviewing plans if I had that “Stamp”.
    Flashback to 1955 and got Amateur Radio license, K5CSJ. Then I got a First Class FCC Radiotelephone license which helped me get jobs with a commercial radio station, KTSA and two TV stations, KENS and WWL. Along the way I founded the Tulane University campus radio station, WTUL. It is now full time on FM.
    I could not have accomplished much of the above with about a good command of the language. I communicated well with every good engineer I hired.
    Your work is good. I bought your XP book and it is great. A book on migrating from XP to Win 7 would be a big help.

  134. Just a bit more from a big fan of yours:
    At some point in your life I suspect that you had one or more mentors. For me a true mentor is not just an above average teacher but is a person who changed your life. For me there were at least two. Perhaps you could write about the importance of this.

    I bought your book on Win XP in hard copy and it has been invaluable. My city here is Leon Valley, TX which is now surrounded by San Antonio. Leon Valley has a very fine library with a huge following and a small budget. On my VERY meager budget I have donated books to them. Perhaps you could donate copies of your books to Leon Valley and I will try to promote them. If that is interesting let me know.

    Microsoft “donated” about $13,000 to the library to upgrade their computer system. Some of the donation was for software. The library did get a serious benefit. In 1959 I worked as a lab assistant at the Tulane University Physics Laboratory when I was an undergraduate in EE. We received a gift from Texas Instruments of about 200 silicon transistors that were rare and expensive at the time. Retail cost at the time was about $5000. In today’s dollars that would be $40,000 !

    I learned about transistors from the lab instructor, Melvin, who happened to be an ex-TI employee but had no connection to the gift. As it was he was back in New Orleans from Dallas to start an electronics design and manufacturing design company. I became their first employee and later a director and chief engineer.

    That transistor gift gave many physics majors their first experience with flip-flops and transistor amplifiers. Indirectly EE students and instructors learned as I solved problems using real-world formulas, not those from out of date textbooks. All got to see manufacturers data sheets for the first time. In those pre-Xerox days some were photo copied. TI really made money “giving” the devices away at retail. The benefit of the gift was quite substantial. You don’t have transistors, but you do have books.

    Please let me hear from you.

  135. May I agree with Betty Braden. Many many years ago I looked after the Local Education Authority’s workshop that dealt with our schools’ AV equipment. Too many times the fault reported by members of the schools’ staff, even if clearly defined, could not be found. So many times the answer could have been found by just reading the equipment’s instruction manual. In those cases the kit was returned with the tags “NFF” & “RTFM”. Public forum prevents me from translating the acronyms 😉

  136. When I got my first programming job at Wang, they had a documentation team comprised of English majors who knew nothing about technology. When we finished a system or a module, they would interview us and we would have to explain them how it worked and make them understand how to use the system. They, in turn, wrote it up in any easy to understand manual. Of course the programmers needed enough communication skills to explain it to the documentation team.

  137. Hi Leo — What surprises me is how few people ask someone else to proof their writing. Even the most accomplished authors need editors and proofreaders! Your blog, Leo, is always well written. However, I’d love to edit/proofread the work of bloggers; they’d get clean copy with a quick turnaround and I’d get to read fresh ideas. As a blogger, do you think this would be a useful service that authors would pay for? I’ve worked in IT, media, and education…and have overseas and ESL teach experience.

    I think that errors may turn off potential readers and customers by making authors seem unprofessional or less intelligent than they are–there’s been a study of errors in ads that suggest this.

    If you’d like to share your opinion with me, I’d be happy to take a quick look at an article or two!

  138. Dear Mr. Notenboom,

    Thank you sir, for addressing this problem. What the commenter Ruth highlighted is so true – people do not proofread their comments. Doing so once or twice may not suffice. Many professional publications have an array of several proofreaders – some having as many as thirty proofreaders checking for accuracy before releasing the final draft.

    The problem today lies with people who are in too much of a hurry to get their ideas out and are oftentimes the kind of individual who does not take the time to think about what they are going to say verbally or in writing either before they speak or write. Another group of people closely related to this are those individuals who have little or no patience, who are content to follow the path of least resistance and who thus feel no inclination to put forth real effort to communicate properly. A case in point is the previous commentator who stated that she does not use punctuation in her written communications.

    Then, there are still others who despite their extensive training and education seem to forget that all of that really is meaningless if they are not able to communicate simply and effectively to even the most inexperienced individual the basic concept of the particular subject under discussion. The point is to teach and impress the solution to an individual’s mind in expressions one can understand, which is what you so eloquently do on the level of “every person” even though mistakes such as improper word usage and misspellings have occurred in this article too.

    Curiously, what many commentators in this thread who are “gnawing at the bit” anxious to unleash on all the “transgressors” offer in response to your article are the typical rants, raves and pet peeves. It is sad to observe that many of these learned and talented individuals offer almost no solution, no suggestion to motivate individuals today to value and cherish the privilege to communicate their ideas properly.

    Maybe to help you get descriptions that are more concise from native English speakers, make them pay attention to the accuracy of their submission, by writing on your instructions page that you will accept only a proper well-written and proofread description. Tell them that you will accept ONLY questions, not statements. Tell them unacceptable are questions containing misspelled or missing words and incomplete sentences. There is nothing wrong with a little “tough love” to help native English speakers write better. In customer service, trainers always tell you “Train your customers.”

    • The older format articles had some specific guidelines on how to post comments. Many people paid no attention to them. Now the newer format articles have no posting guidelines, but the quality of the comments hasn’t declined. It seems the kind of person who doesn’t have the patience to proofread their comments, doesn’t have the patience to read the guidelines. 🙂

  139. Hello Leo,

    I find myself in the same ‘ESL situation’ as so many others that subscribe to your newsletter (I am a Dutch speaker myself). Over the years I have been enjoying your newsletter not only for its content, but also for how it got composed, i.e. me finding your use of the English language truely refreshing and inspiring. I dare say my English skills improved because of that (along other sources), a welcome bonus might I add.


  140. Greetings, For someone at the age of 75 beginning to learn her third language in a country which thinks its language should be first at all times and for everything (France) I can only say thank you for your essay on English. May I now try to translate it into French and pass it on to the various acquaintances I have here? Thanks again – R.

  141. Leo:

    I applaud you, Sir, with every bit of sincerity I can muster! I’ve worked for 33 years for an international technology company (who invented the PC, the mouse, the Graphic User Interface, etc), and I am amazed at the lack of literary skills of some of our management people (like the Area Service Manager who once sent out a District-wide email about “incremental weather conditions” in hurricanes).

    I have often been almost reprimanded for my verbosity when I fill out service logs; my response is always “If I take the time to write something and nobody can understand it, then I just wasted my time as well as the reader’s time, and I’ve conveyed nothing about what the problem was, what I observed, or what I did to fix the problem”.

    Please continue with your excellent articles, and continue to push the merits of good communication skills.

    I must admit that I laughed at some of the other comments that were left; apparently one of the problems, aside from the inability to use the language correctly, is the inability – or refusal – to proof-read what one just wrote BEFORE posting it!

    Again, thanks!

  142. In fact, Leo, your writing is so lucid that, some times I wonder when and how I can write like you. Even though in India, we generally follow British way of English usage(at least elder generation like me), we are now quite used to American English. Considering both the styles, I feel you express even the technical topics in such a way that a non-technical person will also be able to understand it easily.

  143. English speaking is different to English, now English kids do not speak English as one would expect them to because because the colloquial English language in England has become bastardised by the ease of world communication, nowadays foreign words and slang are frequently used in speech not only by the young people but also by their teachers (who should know better) due in my view to a marked drop in teaching standards in the last 40 years.
    As children in England we had English (or grammar) lessons in school which gave the basics which you grow up with, but knowing why a certain term is used or what it actually means is another thing because many English words are derived from French, German, Norse, and of course Latin so truly understanding English is quite difficult.
    Then we come to the dialect differences in each county or shire, same words but pronounced differently, mostly understandable although in some counties more difficult to understand especially if the local speech is spoken fast, while Oxford English which is clear and understandable is supposed to be (proper English) but that could also be attributed to William Shakespeare who would have had a strong midlands dialect.
    The Americans say that they speak English, well it’s a version with which we can communicate, American English now contains words which do not mean anything like “gotten” ? but may tend to shorten a sentence, now I notice some top English authors are using this word in books aimed at the American and world markets.
    The point is with the help of poor schooling the English language is changing and not for the better, as older generations aged 12 to 40’s use baby speech like Wiv (With) Fink (Think) and Fank’s (Thank’s) and much more, which in my view is not dialect and it’s certainly not English, it is just poor uneducated baby talk.
    In England most of us speak English but do not command it, indeed neither is my English and spelling perfect, although now being in my middle 70’s I do despair at it’s decline over the last 40 years or so.
    Thank’s for educating us Leo, regards Robert

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