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Comment of the Fortnight
29 October 2000
Personal Note

Happy Birthday, Steve!

Programmers: Proper English is important

If you're not a programmer, or if your native language is not English, this isn't directed at you.

Let's say that someone sends you this fragment of C code:

   if ( n_guests = guest_limit ) {
      printf("Guest limit has been reached.\n");
      vacancy == 0;

You're probably thinking, “Who wrote this code? Doesn't this person know how to use = and == correctly?” Some of you may even be thinking more uncharitable thoughts about the intelligence of the person who wrote that code.

Now, what would you think if the programmer said, “Oh, well, you know what I meant to say, so it doesn't matter. The person who finishes writing the project can correct it.” Would your opinion of this programmer be lessened even further?

Now imagine that you are the author of the following English sentences:

Security is a major concern. Never underestimate it's importance when your trying to prevent corporate data from being stolen.

Someone tells you that the words in bold are wrong. What kind of opinion do you think the reader has of you? If you would respond, “Well, you know what I meant, and that's what they pay editors for, anyway,” would the reader's opinion of you be enhanced or lessened?

There is one obvious difference between the two situations. Computers, not being human, cannot know what you intended, and thus cannot correct a faulty program. Humans can re-read and re-interpret. Beneath this superficial difference, however, lies a more subtle effect which may explain why programmers are so unwilling to correct their English. When the compiler gives you an error message, it does so mechanically. As a programmer, you know this, and thus do not take the message personally. On the other hand, when another person tells you that your English is wrong -- that's personal.

Despite the differences between program code and English prose, the ultimate goal of both is the same: to communicate information. With that goal in mind, it's best to make the communication as clear, effective, and error-free as possible.


The election for President of the United States is coming up soon. Here's my fearless prediction: George W. Bush will win by a respectable margin. I'm not voting for him; his views and mine are almost 180 degrees apart on issues that I consider to be of great importance. I'm just predicting the winner.

Whom will I vote for? It's either going to be Harry Browne, the Libertarian, or John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party. I'm leaning more towards Hagelin at the moment, since a discussion on kuro5hin has managed to convinced me that there is a larger role for government than the libertarians would like.

Let me know what you think.

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