Watch Your Writing - Tips to Improve Your Written Communications (Revised Dec 2021)
03 Dec 2021
Reading time ~9 minutes
With the explosion of social media over the past decade or so, the written word is often the first, and sometimes the only, exposure other people will ever have of you. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who who will only ever know you through your writing. Fair or not, many of them will judge you on how well you express yourself. This article is an attempt to provide some simple guidance to improve your language and your writing, to make that first impression a positive one.
My target audience is native English speakers. While I am sure non-native English speakers may be able to benefit from these tips, I do not pretend to understand the struggles that come with learning another language. I have the utmost respect for all who do so.
Note: I originally wrote this article as a knee-jerk reaction to some very poor spelling and grammar by a few of my peers. As some had pointed out, the tone was a bit harsh, especially to those for whom English is not their native language. This version is an attempt to rewrite that article in a more positive, upbeat tone. You can still read the original here if you wish.
Most spelling mistakes online are probably caused by simple typos. This is especially true if you are typing on a mobile device. First, use a spell checker. In today’s world, spell checkers are everywhere. The code editor I am using right now has one. A word of caution, however: if you are not careful, you can still use a correctly spelled word incorrectly. That is a harder problem to solve and requires more proofreading.
Even though you may spell words correctly, it is possible to confuse your reader by using inappropriate language, words, and grammar. This section contains the errors I see most 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
- ❌ 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.
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, Examples
awhile after a preposition.
- ❌ The code took awhile to build.
- ✅ The code took a while to build. We should discuss our build process for awhile.
- ✅ We should discuss our build process awhile.
Though technically either form is correct, in most of the English-speaking world, the proper spelling is
canceled. In reality, it does not matter which one you use; the former spelling (cancelled) is becoming more common. My advice is to pick one and be consistent.
If you expect your reader to derive some meaning from your statement, you are implying. Your reader is inferring. Try not to reverse them.
- ❌ What are you inferring with that statement?
- ✅ What are you implying with that statement?
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 opinion, 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 your writing will be better if you eliminate this word.
This error is one I probably see more than any other. The confusion is that adding apostrophe-s to most words turns them into a possessive form. This is an exception to that rule. The word
it's is a contraction, meaning
it is. The correct possessive form is
its, without the apostrophe.
- ❌ My cat just spent the last five minutes chasing it’s tail.
- ✅ My cat just spent the last five minutes chasing its tail.
- ❌ Its a beautiful day outside.
- ✅ It’s a beautiful day outside.
whose, which follow a similar pattern.
The past-tense of the verb
led, often confused with its homonym
lead, which is a dense, soft metal.
The rule for this 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
- ❌ This code has less bugs than the last one.
- ✅ This code has fewer bugs than the last one.
- ✅ This code is less complex than the last one.
- ❌ I have less dollars today than yesterday.
- ✅ I have fewer dollars today than yesterday.
- ✅ I have less money today than yesterday.
This is another one I see often. The word
let's is a contraction meaning “let us.” On the other hand,
lets is a verb meaning “allows.”
- ❌ I hope the manager let’s us use Ionic.
- ✅ I hope the manager lets us use Ionic.
- ❌ Lets try Ionic for this project.
- ✅ Let’s try Ionic for this project.
I think this one can be confusing 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.
- ❌ First I run my tests, than I commit the code.
- ✅ First I run my tests, then I commit the code.
There is a directional indicator.
Their is the possessive form of
They're is a contraction meaning “they are.”
- ✅ Their defense is over there on the sideline discussing how they’re going to put more pressure on the quarterback.
Most people get this one right. The errors often occur when they are referring to a person and a situation that is not currently true, may happen in the future, or is unlikely ever to happen. This is known as the “subjunctive mood,” and the normal rules do not apply.
Basically, the subjunctive rule is to use the plural form of the verb with the singular form of the noun. If you are not accustomed to seeing it, you will think the correct form is the error and vice versa.
- ❌ If I was the manager of this team, things would be different.
- ✅ If I were the manager of this team, things would be different.
- ❌ If John was to run for office, he would have my vote.
- ✅ If John were to run for office, he would have my vote.
Whose is possessive. However,
who's is a contraction meaning
- ❌ Who’s pull request is this?
- ✅ Whose pull request is this?
- ❌ Whose responsible for the new feature?
- ✅ Who’s responsible for the new feature?
yours are another example of possessive words that do not use an apostrophe. Its incorrect use almost always comes in the form of someone using
your when they mean
you're, or “you are.” Every now and then, I see
your's, which as far as I know, is never proper English.
- ❌ Your welcome
- ✅ You’re welcome
- ❌ Are these pull requests your’s?
- ✅ Are these pull requests yours?
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.
A Note on Apostrophe Use
An odd trend I have seen on Twitter lately is an overall incorrect use of the apostrophe to make common nouns plural. I even see this from professional writers.
- ❌ I need some approval’s for my pull request.
- ✅ I need some approvals for my pull request.
- ❌ My parent’s are visiting for the holiday’s this year.
- ✅ My parents are visiting for the holidays this year.
There are times where it is appropriate, often when simply adding
s would cause confusion.
- ❌ There are two as in algebra.
- ✅ There are two a’s in algebra.
For more information, see this excellent article on the subject. It contains many more examples and details. It can be a complex subject.
- ❌ He lead our standup meeting today.
- ✅ He led our standup meeting today.
- ✅ Alchemists tried to turn lead into gold.
An infinitive is a verb form that is used as a noun. For example, 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, and is technically a grammatical error.
- ❌ 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 tends to be acceptable and widespread, especially in informal writing, I recommend avoiding them in formal and business writing.
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.
Though not a critical rule, I recommend avoiding them. Admittedly this is merely 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. Microsoft Word automatically flags their use when you configure your document type to any sort of professional setting.
- ❌ 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.
Though it has become more acceptable in society, if you are doing any professional, business, or technical writing, try to avoid profanity of any kind.
I suspect that I am much in the minority on this one, but I stand by my opinion. If you are writing a novel, things might be different.
First impressions are lasting ones. It may not be fair, but people do judge you based on your words. Sloppy writing in a professional setting can you noticed for all the wrong reasons. You owe it to yourself to spend some time making sure that your meaning conveys your intent.
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.
In addition, these two books have probably been more help to me than any other throughout my career.
Note: These are affiliate links to Amazon.com, and I could potentially receive a commission for any sales resulting from them.
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Did I make any mistakes in this post? Feel free to suggest an edit.