Watch Your Language - Spelling and Grammar Tips for Developers (Updated April 2020)
13 Apr 2020
Reading time ~6 minutes
At the risk of offending some of my peers, I want to make an observation. As a group, we tend to be horrible at written communication. Software developers are some of the worst writers I have ever read. We make sloppy mistakes, both in spelling and in grammar. Whether you write technical articles for a living, blog posts for a hobby, or pull request comments, this article is an attempt to provide some simple guidance to improve your language and your writing.
First, use a spell checker. In today’s world, there is no excuse for spelling words incorrectly. However, if you are not careful, you can still use a correctly spelled word incorrectly. Below are some common mistakes I see often.
There is no such word, even though many spell checkers do not flag it. It is an informal form of
This word does not appear in the English language. It is an informal way of saying
a lot. When in doubt, consider using
Do not use…
There were alot of bugs in the last release.
There were a lot of bugs in the last release. There were many bugs in the last release.
Though technically either form is correct, in most of the English-speaking world, the proper spelling is
canceled. Quite frankly, it does not matter which one you use; try to be consistent.
Again, there is no such word. There are two words you may wish to use instead:
October 2020 Update!
That said, I concur with the following, taken from the article:
“It’s not a real word. I don’t care what the dictionary says,” responds author Michelle Ray, who teaches English in Silver Spring, Md.
I stand by my recommendation that you should not use the word.
This one probably bothers me more than any other. The word
it's is a contraction, meaning
it is. The correct possessive form is
Do not use…
My cat just spent the last five minutes chasing it's tail. Its a beautiful day outside.
My cat just spent the last five minutes chasing its tail. It's a beautiful day outside.
I see this one often. The word
let's is a contraction meaning “let us.” On the other hand,
lets is a verb meaning “allows.”
Do not use…
I hope the manager let's us use Ionic. Lets try Ionic for this project.
I hope the manager lets us use Ionic. Let's try Ionic for this project.
I think this one confuses people because we no longer use
then in most programming languages for conditionals. Shell script and BASIC programmers probably do not make this mistake.
Than is used to compare two things.
- If this,
- This is better
Their defense is over there working hard to show they’re the most talented.
Whose is possessive. “Whose pull request is this?” However,
who's is a contraction meaning
who is. “Who’s responsible for this new feature?”
Your is possessive.
You're is a contraction meaning
you are. Please do not confuse the two. Whenever I see
your welcome in a message, I always want to reply,
my welcome what???
I imagine that this is almost always a typo, but it is worth mentioning.
Even though you may spell words correctly, and use the correct spelling of your words, it is possible to confuse your reader by using inappropriate language, words, and grammar. This section contains the errors I see most often.
Though it has become more acceptable in society, profanity has no place in a professional setting or in your professional writing. If you are writing a novel, or perhaps an article for Rolling Stone, swear all you like. Please do not swear in your technical tutorials, blog posts, and especially not your business emails. Profanity makes you appear neither smarter nor more mature.
I admit to being guilty of this one myself.
A while refers to an indefinite amount of time.
Awhile is an adverb, and will usually appear next to a verb. Also, though some people do it, do not use
awhile after a preposition.
Do not use…
The code took awhile to build. We should discuss our build process for awhile.
The code took a while to build. We should discuss our build process awhile.
If you expect your reader to derive some meaning from your statement, you are implying. Your reader is inferring. Try not to reverse them.
The past-tense of the verb
led, often confused with its homonym
lead, which is a metal.
I see this error often, and the rule is pretty simple. If you can count something, use
fewer. If you cannot count it, or you tend to use its singular noun form, use
Do not use…
This code release has less bugs than the last one.
This code release has fewer bugs than the last one. This code release is less complex than the last one.
An infinitive is a verb form that is used as a noun. The word
replicate is a verb.
To replicate is a noun. In the sentence
Docker enables teams to replicate, the verb is
enables and the noun is
Splitting an infinitive involves adding another word between the two.
Do not use…
Docker enables teams to quickly replicate their development and production environments.
Docker enables teams to replicate their development and production environments quickly.
Also correct, though less common
Docker enables teams quickly to replicate their development and production environments.
Though splitting infinitives is becoming more acceptable and widespread, especially in informal writing, the use of split infinitives seems lazy.
Some two-word phrases are commonly abbreviated into contractions (can’t, shouldn’t, we’re, they’ll, etc.). Most of us who are not Lt. Commander Data use them almost unconsciously. This is not a hard and fast rule, so much as a preference on my part. I was taught many years ago that one should avoid using contractions in professional and technical writing. Their use is considered too informal.
Do not use…
It's come to my attention that you're having questions, and don't understand why we're doing this project.
It has come to my attention that you are having questions, and do not understand why we are doing this project.
Like it or not, people do judge you based on your words. Sloppy writing is unprofessional. Spend some time making sure that your meaning conveys your intent.
If you made it this far, then you probably experienced at least one of two emotions:
- Slight embarrassment that I exposed some flaw in your own writing style.
- Annoyance at one or more of my opinions.
If you agree with me entirely and make none of these mistakes, congratulations!
If you have some favorites of your own that I have forgotten, or you believe I made any spelling or grammatical errors in this article, please let me know.
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