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By Jack Ganssle

Writing Rite

Published 1/12/2005

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 to get a decent job, it's wise to be business-like.

That article was recently posted to the net ( (with Weinberg's permission). It's interesting reading. As one who works at home and who 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, becoming increasingly common here in Baltimore), and the like. We generally assume, rightly or wrongly, the speaker hasn't much schooling.

But what about one's virtual appearance?

20 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 moved to different states, so we keep the discussion going via an email listserver. One recent thread was frustrating due to a participant's grammatical mangles which 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 is a smart, highly educated person, yet the image conveyed by his emails is that of a dimwit.

I get a lot of email - hundreds of real messages a day and almost 2000 spams. 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 email 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 Jones. A message to me isn't important, but I wonder if all their email 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 email 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 emails. 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-Turvey (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?