Writing rite - Embedded.com

Writing rite

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Years ago well-known computer scientist Gerald Weinberg accused programmers of ignoring the realities of the corporate environment. Too many developers, he felt, dress and act like pigs, or at least like blue collar workers. To get ahead or even get a decent job, it's wise to be business-like.

That article (“Personal Chemistry and the Healthy Body”) was recently posted to the net (with Weinberg's permission). It's interesting reading. As one who works at home and comes to the office unshaven in a bathrobe most mornings, the piece rankled a bit. But he does have a valid point. Back when I had a real job an astounding number of applicants for engineering or programming jobs showed up looking like the night before must have been one to remember. Though brilliance can eclipse appearance or comportment, usually there are a dozen other equally-qualified applicants who are willing to play by the well-known rules of the game.

Just after reading that article the radio played Paul Simon's “Kodachrome,” and the unforgettable line “My lack of education hasn't hurt me none” struck a similar vein. Verbal appearance counts, too. Most of us cringe at poor speech, the use of “ain't,” double negatives (or triple, which are increasingly common here in Baltimore), and the like. We generally assume, rightly or wrongly, the speaker hasn't had much schooling.

But what about one's virtual appearance?

Twenty years ago a few of us started Boys Night Out, an excuse to get together every Thursday, drink a few beers, and debate topical issues. The group grew in size and diversity. Over time some of us moved to different states, so we've kept the discussion going via an e-mail listserver. One recent thread was frustrating because a participant's grammatical mangles so distorted the messages it was hard to even discern his intent. Yesterday he replied to one of my comments and misspelled his own first name, one that's not uncommon or difficult.

This man is a smart, highly educated person, yet the image conveyed by his e-mails is that of a dimwit.

I get a lot of email ” hundreds of real messages and almost 2,000 spams a day. It's interesting to examine the styles. Spam is nearly always poorly written, full of intentional and accidental misspellings, and utterly devoid of grammar. Spammers are morons, a fact reflected by their crummy way with words. Here's one from today's file:

“Christmas is over yet our system has working and have return 4 NEW NEW NEW desprate housewifes that meet you're profile.”

Assuming one was in the market for desperate housewives, most intelligent people would figure the message was from a loser. That's simply terrible marketing. I can't imagine anyone would take the sender seriously.

Interestingly, one that snuck through the filters this week was a classic phishing attempt spoofing the security department from Citibank. It sounded just like the sort of letter a bank would send. Great writing gave the scam a veneer of respectability.

Most of the non-spam e-mail I get comes from developers; the vast majority of this is reasonably well written. People obviously take care to quickly proof their messages. Their virtual appearance is that of smart people.

Some messages meet no known standard for correct English. Often these are obviously from folks who aren't native speakers of the language. I admire their cross-cultural communications.

Other badly composed messages come from the Tom Smiths and Bill Joneses. A message to me isn't important, but I wonder if all their e-mail is so poorly constructed. What image do they give to a boss or a prospective employer (or to a burgeoning romantic e-partner)?

We've never had so many tools to check our spelling and grammar. That red underscore is a flag screaming “fix this or you'll sound like an idiot!” Just as some developers ignore compiler-generated warning messages, some click “send” and disregard the e-mail client's advice.

I wonder if they're the same group.

The text messaging and IM crowd have their own argot, a compressed phonetic form of English that now appears in e-mails. Hw r u doing? It's fast but hardly expressive.

The old fart in me rebels at this new form of communication. Yet I can still hear my dad's admonishments against the neologisms of my youth. In the wonderful movie Topsy-Turvy (about the making of The Mikado in 1885) W.S. Gilbert's father rants against the then new invention of the telephone, complaining that it will lead even further to the deterioration of the written word. Every generation seems to criticize the language used by youngsters.

Language and communications methods do evolve and change. But they change slowly. Like it or not, email creates an image of the sender. What do you want that image to be?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .


Reader Response


Then how did G. W. Bush get into the White House? Answer: His spell checker is … “workin' real hard”.

– Steve King


Back in the early 80s, I operated a bulletin board system and was a part of what I like to consider an initialevolution of language. During this explosive growth of interest in bulletin board systems, the English language morphedfrom normally typed words to contractions including “L8R” for later, which of course evolved to “L8R0N” as clevernesswith the new medium was promulgated. I found it quite interesting when years later that the IRC chat folks (especiallythose nearly lifelong participants) would like to claim that it was they who had created this second language with wordsthat are even spelled with more numbers. Take for instance, the word “elite” spelled with numbers: “3133+”. In anycase, my point is that for each medium involved, language will evolve accordingly. One doesn't use “ain't” on paper,it's a verbal thing, you see.

– Matthew Staben


I recently responded on a forum with:”I am having trouble understanding what you problem actually is. I appreciate that English may not be your firstlanguage, but if you could try to rephrase …”The reply began:”English is my firts langwage …”

QED 🙂

– Colin Walls


Regarding your “smart, highly educated person” friend… I'm normally a perfect-speller and I used to make funof people without this virtue. Nowadays I try to hold back my critics. There are many “smart, highly educated persons”which in fact are suffering from various grades of dyslexia (dyslexia – what a difficult word to spell for them!) thoughthey are compensating for this developing other skills, and thus are worth all respect.Hans (Swedish)

– Hans Nielsen


I agree completely with what you've written, and will go even further to point out what you say in email isalso vitally important. Being known as a “flamer” (in the usenet sense of the word) may pass in alt.*, but it is notlikely to elicit any positive response when corresponding with real people.

If you disagree with a viewpoint or have trouble with a product, state your opinions or observations clearly. Try not totell the tech support people how to fix the product, that's not something they (usually) have control over.

If you're disagreeing with another's opinion, state your beliefs and what led you to your conclusions. Do not attack thewriter personally, question his parentage, species, or devotion to his work, or resort to name calling or slurs.

It's amazing how far people will go to help you if you're just polite. This even applies to open source softwarecontributors.

– Wes Peters


I am an Indian, born and brought up in India.I do not know to what extent the Americans know about my country (barring what is reflected in outsourcing issues).

Millenniums ago Aryans realized what you have rightly expressed in your article and they came up with a beautifullystructured language known as “Sanskrit”.

One of the major features of Sanskrit is that if you do not speak it correctly, it will not communicate the meaning atall. So you either use it correctly or do not use it. A person was considered 'cultured' if he spoke Sanskrit.

All literature created by the Aryans, whether it were philosophy, medicine, Yoga, economics, poetry, epics, or anythingthey considered worth preserving for posterity was written in Sanskrit. Use of the word “written” is not strictly true;”composed” may be a better choice.

Aryans always composed their literature in the form of Mantras, be it a treatise on mathematics or medicine, surgery orfine arts, machinery or erotica. They never claimed the ownership to what they created. To this date nobody knows whocomposed Veda, an extraordinary composition made up of several thousand Mantras.

To preserve what was composed, they used an extremely elaborate and enduring mechanism, more enduring than writing. Sothe literature has survived and yet you may not find any manuscripts. In the absence of material proof, present dayhistorians can not date the literature. But the Aryans did not care; they were more interested in preserving than inrecognition.

They always thought that knowledge was for universal use. They would have considered the idea of 'intellectual property'to have come from an extremely uncultured mind.

That was a great civilization indeed.

Even to this date there are people who speak this language and preserve the literature.

What I have written above was not to introduce you to the great Aryan culture, but to express thefeeling that whether one can share certain emotions or not, a cultured person always shares common values, beyond timeand geographical space.

– Laxman Karandikar


I agree with you completely.Perhaps your friends message went through the beer filter before being sent. It is boys night out. ;^)My spell checker found lots of red in this message before I sent it.Now to get the grammar checker working.

– Tim Flynn


Coincidence – Just one of those email forward's:

“I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd

waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the

hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at

Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht

oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt

tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit

pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can

sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae

the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef,

but the wrod as a wlohe…………..”—–

I guess people are growing more smart – but personally, I think this leads to complete miscommunication and lack of modulation when reading shorted messages, unless it is crafted scientifically as above. Professionals ought to present a better picture and ought to know and do better.

– Saravanan T S


I'm appalled by the same grammatical errors and stupid abbreviation as you are. However, I find myselfwondering if this is just another symptom of the increasing rate of change of our society. To bring it back to theembedded systems realm, think about how long 5V TTL lasted (decades) compared to the new voltage standards beingintroduced every few months now. The PC you order becomes obsolete before it reaches your doorstep. Pretty soon, parents won't just complain about their children's speech; their children will actually be speaking adifferent language from birth.

Not all change is progress. Some of it keeps us from being able to move in one direction long enough to learn anything.

– Greg Nelson


Can't fully agree with you. One doesn't talk to his friend, team member and his boss in the same way. Itdefinitely differs. So the words. Of course spell check is necessary for all. But the style definitely differs.

– Eeshwar


I'm a Chinese, born and raised in Burma. I migrated to Canada at 23, graduated from university, worked, and lived in Canada and US. I speak excellent Burmese and I try to speak decent English. I've learned written English in Burma with books from Oxford University Press. Once I arrived in Canada, I was shocked to see that there's no English grammar or sentence structure books in book stores (US, Canada). I guess the local N Americans don't need to learn correct written English since it's supposed to happen magically or automatically. The TOEFL exam I took (just to get into the university) will surely flunk many/most Canadians and Americans. One of my TAs in chemistry lab gave me '0' point for writing “inflammable” instead of “flammable” chemical. I showed her the dictionary entries to let her know they both mean the same thing.

I've helped my co-workers with spelling, both in Canada and US (while they're not near a spell checker; our Lotus Notes don't check the spelling). One of the locals commented that if they need to check spelling, they have to come to an immigrant like me. I also participated in corporate spelling bee in Minnesota.

It's always important to use the current country's language properly in order to get anywhere in jobs and business, or even getting a room at Marriott Hotel for that matter (especially for me since I look like a Chinese). For locals, spoken English comes naturally. And written English, well, we all know how it is. Just today, one of the guys spelt the desk drawer as, “desk droor” in his email. His dad is a professor at a respected university in N America.

Interestingly, most engineers I met can write proper and correct English, up to a point. I'm not sure if all of them had to take mandatory Technical English as I did in EE school though. But then again, people can accidentally die, if I/we don't write correct, clear English in my jobs.

– Patrick Wong


Grammar got run over by a reindeer! So true.

Most engineers I know have terrible language skills. What I wouldn't give for lucid, coherent documentation. Or, at the very least, documentation correctly spelled and punctuated.

What people don't realize is that productivity is lost when writing is poor. If I have to puzzle over an email or a memo or a spec to figure out what it means, this represents potentially productive time lost forever.

Okay, so we all don't have to be total grammar snobs like me — but surely our baseline level of written competence must be raised so that we can at least understand each other.

And about presentation — you're so right, Jack. People whose written work doesn't scan appear uneducated or less intelligent. Or maybe they just look that way to the few of us for whom grammar is important. And given there are so few of us, maybe it really doesn't matter in the grander scheme of things. You and I will find this a sad state, but if it's just the few of us, this may be a losing battle.

The best we can do, like Mr Wong here, is be a resource for our colleagues.

– Daniel Singer

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