Susan Slaughter

How I Got Started with Computers

In Detritus, Everything, Writing on July 29, 2014 at 2:33 pm

This is not your typical tech story.

I trace my life as a programmer back to ninth grade, not to a computer class or even a math class, but to English. 

In ninth grade, I was fortunate to have English with Miss Burke who, along with the standard Shakespeare and expository writing, slipped in material which was decidedly not part of the official curriculum.  She taught us substantial, meaty lessons in grammar.  This was not the namby-pamby stuff that usually passes for grammar.  (Does ANYBODY care about the subject and predicate?  I certainly don’t.)  Instead we studied the logic of natural language: dependent and independent clauses, direct and indirect objects, and the sacred eight parts of speech.  Ok, I made up the sacred part, but just because I’m still so excited about this.  She told us, “A sentence is a complete thought”—and it was an epiphany for me.  I loved it!

Little did I know at the time that syntax is syntax is syntax whether you are talking about a spoken language or a computer language.  The rules of some languages are more arbitrary than others (anyone remember JCL?) , but if you don’t follow the rules, then what you write won’t make sense regardless of whether you are talking to people or computers.

That’s why it bugs me when programmers mess up English syntax such as the correct use of subjective and objective pronouns like who and whom.  I think, “It’s all syntax.  You should know this!”  But I digress.

The point I would like to make is this: Women are still grossly underrepresented in the computer field.  Maybe women would be more interested if someone explained to them that talking to a computer is a lot like talking to a person.

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