Matt Gemmell

Language skills

5 min read

Brent Simmons wrote a piece yesterday about people making careless punctuation errors:

When you do, my opinion of and trust in your work goes down.

I agree wholeheartedly. I see hundreds of examples of consistently shoddy writing each week, and I’ve heard all of the classic excuses.

I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about having a flair for natural dialogue, or being able to construct a pithy retort, or demonstrating a breadth of vocabulary that has readers reaching for a dictionary. Writing may not be your craft – but it’s still implicitly the first entry in your list of skills.

You have to know the basics. For some reason, the poorer a person’s language skills, the more defensive (or faux-cavalier) they tend to get when called out on it. Most of the counter-arguments are irrational, or miss the point.

“I’m a developer, not a writer”

Nonsense. Everyone is a writer, just like everyone is a reader and a speaker. Language isn’t something you get to opt out of.

Your native tongue has a set of rules to follow just like your preferred programming language (or the principles of design you adhere to), and you’ve been learning them since you were a child. You were, and are a writer first and foremost.

“I have a medical condition”

I’m sorry to hear that; it’s certainly not your fault, and I sympathise. But it’s a reason, not an excuse. Since you’re aware of your condition, why are you publishing text without having it checked by someone else?

This argument also applies to those who are writing in a language that’s foreign to them. You can just about make an appeal to practicality regarding personal tweets, but for a business web site, say? Promotional email? Or in-app micro-copy?

No; don’t be ridiculous. Get it checked. The next person who walks past you can probably help.

“You know what I mean

Probably, yes (but not definitely). The issue usually isn’t that you’re failing to convey meaning; it’s the other things you’re conveying alongside. You’re giving an impression of either laziness, lack of education or intelligence, or (in the most generous case) having a learning disability.

You’re damaging your own reputation. The fact that you don’t seem to care about it only compounds the problem.

It’s not OK

Whatever a person’s excuse might be, it’s difficult to get past the idea that this is someone who has failed to comprehend and internalise the rules of a language they’ve used almost every day of their life. That’s the magnitude of the negative impression being created. It’s like publicly, repeatedly demonstrating that you can’t tell the time, or count – and that you bizarrely don’t see those deficiencies as particularly worrisome or problematic.

If you’re reading this, then there’s a better than even chance that your primary native language is English. You’ve been hearing it since before birth, speaking it since you were an infant, and you’ve been taught to write it since you were a small child. Most of the things you see during your daily life include text in that language.

You’ve probably been alive for at least a decade or two, reading, writing and speaking all the while. Now imagine that, after all that time and exposure, you’ve failed to quite grasp where commas go, or which version of “there” is appropriate for a given sentence. Others can’t help but make assumptions about you in that context. What assumptions would you make, in an analogous situation?

Maybe you’re unprofessional, and lack attention to detail. Maybe you have problems dealing with systems of rules and when to apply them. Maybe your pattern-recognition abilities are flawed. Maybe you’re wilfully ignoring a condition which has tangible impact on your work. Or maybe you lack empathy, or an understanding of the value of clear communication.

Those are all extremely serious red flags for a software developer, as well as for an educated human being in general.

No-one is saying that you can’t make mistakes – everyone does, for a multitude of reasons. Mistakes are fine. We make them, we recognise them, we fix them. Hopefully we’re edified by the process. We’ll all make allowances for slips, typos, stress, tiredness, and so forth. I’ll almost certainly have made a few errors in this very piece.

But if you’re consistently making what others would consider to be mistakes, there’s a problem. You’re either unaware of an important issue that’s damaging your reputation and undermining your words, or (worse) you haven’t properly assessed the importance of how you come across to other people.

You may debate the abstract ‘importance’ of spelling and grammar and punctuation. You may cling to mostly irrelevant arguments about ubiquitous spell-checkers1, and basic comprehension2, and evolving forms of communication3. What’s not up for debate, though, is that you’re letting yourself down.

I’ve read countless emails, tweets and web pages for software products, technical conferences, video tutorials on development topics, industry podcasts and other professional output that are riddled with errors. I judge those companies and individuals. I judge them before I’ve even had a chance to think about it, and after I’ve thought about it, I judge them even more harshly.

You should not be communicating as a business, and especially not as an individual4, without due attention to the correct use of your language. At best you’ll seem sloppy and immature, and at worst you’ll seem unprofessional and incapable. Would you do business with such an entity? Would you respect them, at first glance?

I wouldn’t. Brent probably wouldn’t either:

This is not, by the way, some prissy thing about proper manners. Fuck that shit. I’m not trying to squash your voice. This is about quality and trust.

If you won’t try to get the basics of your own language right, your motives, abilities and output are all automatically suspect.

If you take the time to make sure your business cards are clean and their colours haven’t shifted, and your app doesn’t crash when launched, and your site works in Safari on iOS, then you understand the concepts of professionalism, reputation and diligence.

If, however, you then publish tweets, emails or blog posts demonstrating consistently poor spelling, grammar or punctuation, you’ve thrown away the credit you’d earned. That’s what those rules are about, no matter how important you’d like to think they are.

Language is a tool of self-expression, and probably the most versatile one. If it matters to you at all how others perceive you as a person, and your business, writing should be at the top of your list for mastery. You either care, or you don’t.

  1. You can spell the wrong word correctly.

  2. Your reputation is the issue, not your meaning.

  3. Which is an excuse.

  4. I’d hope that your personal reputation would matter more to you than that of your business, if it came right down to it.