June 23, 2014

Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance

Filed under: Getting in the door, Interviewing, Job Search, Q&A, Resumes, Video

In the June 24, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions the value of spell-checkers:

A friend of mine applied for a job as a “Principal Engineer” at a local software company. The company recruiter asked lots of questions about his writing ability. It turned out that the recruiter almost threw his resume out, believing my friend had misspelled “principal.” The recruiter said the title is “Principle Engineer.” However, anyone who knows this position knows that “principal” is the correct spelling. That is, one shouldn’t be engineering one’s principles!

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Once he got to the Real Engineers, my friend wowed them and got the job. In this linguistically-challenged era of the spell-checker, I wonder how often good resumes get tossed because the screener can’t spell. (A quick check of Monster turns up dozens of ads for “Principle Engineers.”)

Nick’s Reply

Okay, it’s time for my literacy rant, right after my rant about resumes. Thanks for sharing this common story, which often has a less happy ending.

This is one of the many ways resumes (or LinkedIn profiles) can sink you. They are dumb pieces of paper (or characters on a computer screen) that cannot defend facts, spelling, or credentials. When resumes are screened by personnel clerks, you lose. That’s why I advocate using personal contacts to get interviews. Your friend got lucky. Don’t rely on luck. (See How (not) to use a resume.)

Now let’s tackle “the other problem,” because it’s far more important: Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance.

It isn’t just illiterate recruiters who create problems. It’s become distressingly common in business and in the professions to hear that “your point” is more important than “how you express it.” That’s bunk. (Watch the Taylor Mali video.) People shrug off poor spelling and incorrect grammar as though it’s inconsequential. I see people smirk and roll their eyes when someone points out errors in their writing, as if to say, “Look, I’m successful. I don’t need no spellin’!”

(You say you use a spell checker? Lotsa luck! In the example we’re discussing, “principle” would not be flagged as incorrect — the word is spelled correctly. But it’s the wrong word.)

What’s a discussion about language doing in Ask The Headhunter? Poor spelling, incorrect grammar, lousy writing and poor oral presentation are all signs of illiteracy. I don’t care what field you work in, how much you earn, or whether you’re a production worker or a vice president. The way you use language reveals who you are, how you think, and how you work. And that will affect your career profoundly. You can pretend otherwise, but you can also walk around buck-naked believing you’re invisible because you’ve got your eyes closed.

We all make mistakes when we write or speak. When I’m in a hurry, I type too quickly. I’ll drop a suffix, substitute a word and fail to delete the original one, or use the incorrect case. That isn’t the point. The point is to know the difference between correct and incorrect usage, and to be able to use language properly.

Incorrect use of language will cost you a job or an opportunity, if it hasn’t already. If you have a problem with usage, I urge you (that is, anyone reading this) to get help. Remember that a software spell checker knows nothing about semantics, and that no grammar checker understands grammar. Take a writing course. Get some good reference books and use them. I write for a living so I’ve got more of these than you’re likely to need, but here are some of the references I keep on my shelf where I can reach and use them. Buy one to get started and use it. Over time it will improve your reputation, your self-confidence, and possibly your income.

Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook. You may remember this little book from college. It’s standard issue for English 101. Most students sell it back to the bookstore, glad to be done with their basic composition course. Too bad, because it’s indispensable and lasts a lifetime. The Handbook will help you quickly find the answer to almost any question about writing and grammar. Keep it next to your dictionary.

Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. This is my favorite reference because it’s fun to read. Garner writes about language with a great sense of humor. This book will teach you more than definitions — it will educate you about how to use words more effectively and precisely.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. There are lots of good dictionaries, but this one will teach you about words through good examples and discussion of their history. It costs a few bucks, but you can pass it on to your grandchildren. I’m taking mine with me.

Literacy matters in business and at work. People who notice your errors will rarely correct you, but they will always judge you. When I goof, feel free to nail me. I welcome it because I want to get it right. Try the same with your friends, in a polite way. Then invite them to monitor your usage, too. Don’t be offended when they point out your errors. Instead, “go look it up,” or suffer the hidden consequences.

Does spelling matter to you? Do you judge people by how they use language and express themselves? I do. And I love hearing success stories and horror stories about the role of our language at work. Please share yours!

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57 Comments on “Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance”
By Cindy
June 24, 2014 at 2:53 am

Could not agree more! Early in my career in the legal field, I witnessed a newly hired employee get humiliatingly fired for incorrect spelling. That experience never left me!

By Matt
June 24, 2014 at 3:10 am

I fully agree. A slight typo here and there is easy to overlook, but consistent grammar or spelling mistakes give an impression of overall sloppiness and incompetence. If this employee does not have the discipline to proofread their emails, what other shortcuts are they taking? If they did not take the time to learn to read and write properly, what other job duties did they not learn properly?

My “favorite” example: Please advice.

By Lisa
June 24, 2014 at 3:41 am

It’s refreshing to hear I’m not the only one who cringes when the English language is slaughtered by those who failed to pay attention in school. Granted, there are instances where proper usage might differ based on the geographical area where one was raised, but even those situations might cause trouble for a job seeker looking to expand their horizons into other parts of the country.

Just this evening I was watching a business makeover program on TV and felt my skin crawl when the business owner asked the restaurant patrons, “Are you’s guys ready to see the new (name of establishment)?” Sadly there are too many instances of this type on television; is it any wonder kids today think language usage is not important?

By George
June 24, 2014 at 6:22 am

This is an excellent article, Nick.

There is a myth about our country’s literacy levels. They are much lower than we are led to believe.

Word processing has corrupted writing in the way that desktop publishing has affected graphic design, and the calculator has short-changed the mind’s ability to do simple arithmetic.

One of my favorite recent interview questions was “What is 10% of 100?” After answering correctly, my interviewer told me I would be shocked to hear how many people get it wrong.

By Bob Paveleck
June 24, 2014 at 7:07 am

Nick has made an excellent point here in saying that literacy does matter. I’ve worked in software development for over 30 years and there is a lot of illiteracy (sadly) in the folks that work in that field. Some of this is due to English not being the native language of many developers, but it also seems to appear often in the writings of upper management and people who have lived their entire lives in the U. S.

Communication and problem-solving are probably the 2 most important skills people need for success at any job, and although I was a math major in college, I believe communication wins out. It’s very frustrating to me when I don’t understand what people are trying to say in stating technical requirements and when they don’t document things clearly. It ends up causing lots of problems and creating a lot of extra work to undo or redo something because it was not made clear in the first place.

By This ship has sailed ...
June 24, 2014 at 7:31 am

Nick,

Grammer and spelling “bit the dust” with the corporate decision for cheap, outsourced labour, especially in support of HR.

Many people cannot spell or use grammar appropriately, people have chosen to give preference to those who “Do as I say …” rather than spelling wizards … especially in the Tech sector.

And for HR, the Grammar and Spell Checkers are not the only problem: HR personnel themsleves do not know HOW to use their computer applications: they are computer illiterate.

None of this reflects on intelligence: cheap labour was the preference and it is dragging the country BACKWARD, as planned. Let me write this again: THIS WAS THE PLAN.

This keeps progress to a minimum crawl so Fortune 500 executives and management can keep up and maintain their illusion of staying in control.

By rick
June 24, 2014 at 7:37 am

Reminds me of my former fiance from Eastern Europe. She spell-checked everything, although her command of English was limited. The resulting word salad was nearly always essentially indecipherable. The brain tease was trying to figure out word she had misspelled to arrive at the nonsense in the email.

Literacy is essential. Even for girlfriends, err, especially for girlfriends.

By Monica
June 24, 2014 at 7:48 am

My first “real” job as a secretary taught me this valuable lesson. Our director used to write speeches for our governor. He was a grammar cop. To this day I can feel him sitting on my shoulder telling me how much grammar and spelling matters. He was a wonderful teacher and 25 years later, I am thankful for his advice.

By This ship has sailed ...
June 24, 2014 at 8:12 am

Yes, the spelling error is on purpose …

By Neil Watson
June 24, 2014 at 8:17 am

The Elements of Style is still one of my favourite English pocket references and worthy of your list.

By Chris Hogg
June 24, 2014 at 8:22 am

Amen, amen, amen and amen!!!!

Also, one other staple on the bookshelf (from Wikipedia):

“The Elements of Style is a prescriptive American English writing style guide in numerous editions. The original was composed by William Strunk, Jr., in 1918 and published by Harcourt in 1920, comprising eight “elementary rules of usage”, ten “elementary principles of composition”, “a few matters of form”, a list of forty-nine “words and expressions commonly misused”, and a list of fifty-seven “words often misspelled”. It was much enlarged and revised by E.B. White for publication by Macmillan in 1959. That was the first edition of so-called Strunk & White, which Time magazine named in 2011 one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.”

By Michaelgav
June 24, 2014 at 9:09 am

Man, Nick, you hit a nerve here. I had a meeting about this with one of my managers only yesterday. We have a partner — a big one — who is routing a number of substantial opportunities our way. During our “courtship,” this partner had mentioned how often he caught himself cringing at the grammar and usage he found in his own company’s communications. Well, the first email one of my guys sent to this partner included the following: “We should if your available take the time to discuss each opportunity.”

This isn’t an extreme example. It’s typical of what arrives in my inbox every day, and, yes, that includes emails from job hunters. But I’ll be damned if I want to find that kind of slipshod writing in my department’s outbox.

We’re planning a daily 7:30 AM communications boot camp to begin in July. Once an employee has been “invited,” his or her participation is mandatory.

Like it or not, a greater percentage of business communication takes place via the written word than face-to-face or over the phone. If we can’t master the fundamentals of such communication better than our competitors, shame on us.

By dlms
June 24, 2014 at 9:15 am

Spelling and writing matter. I had a job where I had to write program and brochure copy, so I took a business writing course. Even though I took comp I and II in college, the business writing course helped.

Since that course, I have written many reports, papers, and brochures. And, I tell my college-age students they need to learn to write well before entering the job market.

By Chris Walker
June 24, 2014 at 9:16 am

Spell check is not you friend. Exerpt from a perfectly spelled cover letter (fictional!):

‘I am writing in response to your advertisement for the Office Manger position. During my tome as Office Manger with the Jones County Pubic Library… In my research abut your company…’

Some time ago the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Administration at the University of Texas printed their graduation programs without the ‘p’ in public.

You can create what’s known as an exclusion dictionary for MS Office that would have flagged the the words in the cover letter that, while spelled correctly, are misspellings of more common words. Instructions here: http://www.word.mvps.org/FAQs/General/ExcludeWordFromDic.htm

By Diana Schneidman
June 24, 2014 at 9:28 am

A journal on public affairs is published in Chicago. Their spell check is programmed to point out each instance of “manger” and “pubic” so these words are only used if intended.

-d

By bill
June 24, 2014 at 9:36 am

Autocorrect on on your Apple device is not your friend either. It seems to always make the wrong choice.

By Another Nick
June 24, 2014 at 9:44 am

Amen!

Two other language points: Learn how to pronounce the words; Only roll out the big words when they’re the best fit.

Mispronouncing less-used words suggests you may be claiming more knowledge than you possess.

Had a big vocabulary because I read widely growing up, but didn’t pronounce correctly since I had never heard some of the words. My wife grew up reading and hearing the words, her father was an outstanding author, thus a stickler for verbal precision. Many in-flight corrections got me up to the mark.

Finally, people sound insecure when they use big words where small ones would do.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 24, 2014 at 10:05 am

I once worked for a company whose president repeated this edict: We never respond to RFPs! That’s for wussies!

Turns out he was a functional illiterate. Couldn’t write to save his life, and was thus obviously incapable of reviewing anyone else’s work. So he created a policy to cover up his illiteracy. But he had an awfully big mouth. The company was wildly profitable for a while, then it went out of business. This fellow was president and had a 7 figure salary. Now he teaches grade school. (Yes, I see the fatal irony, but that’s for another discussion.)

By miloak
June 24, 2014 at 10:15 am

I have added to the list but the original is not mine.
Advice to the Writer
•Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
•It behooves us to avoid archaisms.
•If this were subjunctive, I’m in the wrong mood.
•Hopefully, you will write all adverbial forms correct.
• I’ve told you a thousand times: resist hyperbole.
• Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
• Avoid trendy locutions that sound totally cool.
• Take a bull by the hand and don’t mix metaphors.
• Writing carefully, dangling participles should be avoided.
• Unless you are quoting, kill all exclamation points!!!
• Don’t verb nouns – ‘ize’ added to a noun does not verbalize it.
• Ixnay on the colloquial stuff.
•“Avoid over-use of ‘quotation’ “marks”.’’’
• ““Quotation” marks are “not” for “emphasis”’
• Resist new verb forms that have snuck into the language.
• Eschew dialect, irregardless.
• Never ever use repetitive redundancies.
• Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
• Hopefully, you will use worn-out and incorrect words correctly.
• Avoid tautologies and making the same things equal each other.
• Everyone hates the comma-splice, you must avoid them.

By Ken
June 24, 2014 at 10:19 am

Nick,

On the mark as always.

This reminds me of a pet peeve that an English teacher of mine had regarding the word aggravate.

He got hot under the collar when people used the word aggravate instead of irritate. e.g. I am aggravated instead of I am irritated.

The definition of aggravate is “to make worse”.

Unfortunately with common usage, aggravate has become a synonym for irritate.

Just because everyone is using it incorrectly doesn’t mean it is correct.

If I were still reviewing cover letters and résumés for a manager, those with errors would not get a second look, even if it meant that the entire pile got sent back to HR.

I love how some people like to highlight that they are “detail oriented” in their résumé or cover letter and then their résumé or cover letter is riddled with grammatical or typographical errors.

I’ve become a curmudgeon with respect to bad spelling and grammar in my OA.

By LDellL
June 24, 2014 at 10:54 am

Nick,

AMEN!

During my IT career, I saw several problems involving steadily degrading English language skills in all parts of companies. Two really stood out to me as I attempted to analyze and manage the space between developers and users (both of whom are increasingly misusing language in a myriad of different ways).

The first problem involved the general quality of employees at the companies where I worked. As “This Ship Has Sailed” has pointed out, IT has always been too much about about hiring the cheapest labor possible and too little about their actual ability to positively impact the bottom line. Then, cheap managers are hired who can’t reliably direct them. This is true even at start-ups, where the ability to get things done right the first time is crucial.

A lot of the people hired as a result of these budget PRINCIPLES not only aren’t well-versed in their primary responsibility, but their regrettable use of English is often accompanied by other undesirable traits (not knowing how to behave in a business environment, failing to understand a problem before tackling it and rude behavior toward fellow employees and sometimes even clients).

The other problem, which I don’t think has gotten nearly enough attention, is that bad use of a language often causes problems in development and deployment of important projects. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen projects fail due to bad communication. If you can’t understand the big picture and details of what a system needs to accomplish for end users, it’s often because of mangled communication. And this isn’t all from the developer end to the user end; business professionals like marketing, sales and HR people, who should have good English skills, often lack them. And the people at the top of companies don’t seem to understand this problem, much less care about fixing it.

By Gwen
June 24, 2014 at 11:30 am

***Stands up and cheers***

…and to all the comments above, I agree!

One more bad English “thing” that people do as well. They say or write ” these ones” which is incorrect. These is already a plural pronoun not needing another added to it for clarity. It’s simply, ” these”. It may implore the use of a directional, e.g. “these here” but never with the use of another pronoun.

Good article and definitely needed in the era of spell check and auto correct and not understanding common usage from proper usage.

By Patricia
June 24, 2014 at 11:42 am

How timely, Nick.

It is extremely irritating to see typographical errors published online. In a rush to see who can report first, newspapers simply do not care if they get it right the first time. I have started commenting and pointing out errors in the comments section. Some respond, correct and thank. Others do nothing. What example are we setting?

By Candler
June 24, 2014 at 11:57 am

You should see the emails from my school district superintendent. Ay ay ay.

By L.T.
June 24, 2014 at 12:05 pm

nick, how can u relat to new highers if you dont spel lick thay due?

—–

I’ve always found the pocket paperback editions of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and thesaurus, as well as Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”, to be very helpful when I’m writing anything from resumes to fiction.

By Karen
June 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I always have found it hard as a job seeker to apply for positions where I’ve found misspelled words–particularly if the words are those that a spellchecker would catch. Not sure why it bothers me, but I don’t feel like I have much respect for the company when I see simple words misspellled in a job posting.

By Ellen
June 24, 2014 at 1:32 pm

After teaching college English for a number of years, I currently work as an instructional designer for a company that provides technical training. I was observing one of our classes, and was horrified at the errors in the PowerPoint. At one point, I made a comment out loud (I realize that wasn’t the time–guess I had had too much coffee. I guess it was my way of saying, as a company, we’re better than this. The instructor immediately complained to my boss, saying even the students said, “We’re talking about saving lives here; what do we care about punctuation?”

By Chris Walker
June 24, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Punctuation? Suggest the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

By Mark Gibson
June 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Came across this little poem that says it all.

SPELL CZECH

Eye halves a spelling chequer. It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marques four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word and weight four it two say
Weather eye is wrong oar write. It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid, it nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite. It’s rarely ever wrong.

Eye has run this poem threw it, I am shore your pleased two no.
Its letter perfect in its weigh, my chequer tolled me sew.

Sauce Unknown

By Mark Gibson
June 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Sorry. That first sentence should have read, “I came across this little poem that says it all.”

By Don Harkness
June 24, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Great timely discussion. Nick’s right on the mark.
I like to write, and have produced my pounds of business paper in my time. I had to learn to write well and carefully for years when I was a QA Manager. Primarily my objective was to deliver bad news in a nice way (e.g. rather than saying you’ve produced a crappy piece of software and the thought of releasing it ot our customers gives me the dry heaves…I’d say something more like, we need to take the opportunity to make some needed changes..which everyone knew was code for you’ve produced a piece of crap)
For years I had the honor of managing a couple of teams of technical writers, an independent thinking and fearless group of people who delighted in red-lining my memos (making me a better writer). I particularly remember the time the Wall Street Journal devoted a page to good writing…which my team hung on a bulletin board offering numerous and funny edits, corrections and comments. Fortunately they were soft hearted and didn’t hang their opinions of my memos on the Board.
More to Nick’s point, I work for an Engineering company. I can assure you that ANY error in writing, resumes particularly, is spotted with their anal retention beam and taken into consideration, and very often is an instant deal breaker. Especially…misspellings..because we all know God made Spell checkers, and the applicant in sending in misspellings is also demonstrating they cared so little for precision and how they & others viewed their work they didn’t use it. The thinking is “Imagine what their designs would be like?”
We do take into account culture..where an applicant’s English isn’t fully developed, and it shows in their writing at times. There’s some slack given…sometimes. Again have a friend read it, use tools like those mentioned. And to the point, I’ve talked with people who still struggle somewhat speaking English, but whose written work is excellent.
And emails count, especially when they are de facto cover notes/letters. From our view, the mechanism or means of delivery (twitter with thumbs)is no excuse. The destination and intent (job application, networking etc) is what’s important and twitter-ese shorthand is no excuse for sending a poorly written business communication which seemingly would rob you of valuable time.
Having ranted on goodness, I still am appalled when I read my sent folder, at some of the stuff I send out in a hurry.

By Bruce
June 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm

I completely agree.

Using correct spelling and syntax in text-based communication is only the tip. Literacy has become far more than that. Literacy is making and sharing meaning from/with some otherwise abstract technology. (Paper and pen are technologies, too!)

From the hiring side of the desk, I’m amazed by how many people are still not ready to use email, shared calendars, shared file storage. Then, as needed, social media, etc. And this is not limited to a specific age group.

The other piece of this is knowing which to use when. Facebook is NOT the place (even in private messages) to discuss personnel matters.

No matter which form you’re using, study it! Understand how–and when it is best used.

By Catherine
June 24, 2014 at 5:30 pm

I am not sure if anyone mentioned “wordrake”. It helps anyone with their writing and the blog is free of course plus weekly emails. Check it out:
http://www.wordrake.com/writing-tips/

By Citizen X
June 24, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Thanks for the references. I inherited my copy of Garner’s from my lawyer-daughter (or deftly slipped it from her bookshelf onto my own).
The Daily Writing Tips e-newsletter keeps me up-to-date not only on bad word usages to avoid, but reminds me of words that I had forgotten, and introduces me to new words that help me articulate old ideas.
My stand-bys are the Oxford Color Dictionary and Thesaurus for quick look-ups and word ideas, the Oxford American Dictionary for more detailed checks, and the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms.
Any pocket dictionary by the major names is indispensible to have in the office. When I was a manager, I always had a couple lying about, and I purchased a good college dictionary with company funds for the office proper.
I think there is a certain power to be gained from flipping pages in a word-search, and the serendipitous (my computer didn’t help me with my first attempt at this word—I had to look it up in hard copy) effect of absorbing words nearby for future use, or refreshing one’s memory at alternate usages.
But now for two examples of the need to master the dominate language, which in our case, is American English.
When I was a Warehouse Manager, I needed to communicate clearly with my customers on many matters, especially holiday delivery schedules. I tried to accommodate the customer’s delivery dates whenever possible, so I would allow them to make the first request.
One of our most important customers (a dear, sweet man who totally embraced the word “partnership” in our business arrangement) could not compose a coherent e-mail to save his life.
When I got his two-and-a-half pages discussing what he might need for his delivery, I carefully read it twice.
Then I took it to our customer service lead. I said something like, “I don’t want to prejudice you, so I’ll just ask you to read this and tell me your thoughts.”
I went back a several minutes later, and asked if she was able to make any sense of it. She said “no”.
I called the guy and just sorted it out.
When I lost my management position and found a survival job doing the work I once directed, language was not a problem for me at the Material Handling level. I had been exposed to bad written communication skills over the years (and a couple of abusive ones), but I was quite shocked to find that the bad writing on the wall (literally) belonged to key managers.
Even our chief mechanic, who never finished high school, shakes his head at the inability of a manager to spell or to use words correctly.
That was the first time on the job that I became afraid—very afraid.
To me, the capability for a manager to handle the dominate language effectively is a given, not an option. I still like my bosses and respect their humanity, but I’m fearful for the company’s future more than mine.
An old article titled “The Spiritual Meaning of Mental Retardation” makes note of our increasing inability to construct thoughts. (The article is about 40 years old.) Using language to construct thoughts is part of what I call someone’s “cognitive wherewithal”.
If the day arrives that I once again become a hiring manager, a writing sample will be required from the candidate.
As for myself, I always have several samples of memos or procedures or discussions that I have written in the portfolio that accompanies me to the interview. Sometimes, I send the samples ahead of the interview.

By Lisamba09
June 24, 2014 at 11:34 pm

@Chris Hogg…FYI – When I was in my MBA program one of our professors informed us that if we used any form of Wikipedia source we would be docked a full grade on our papers (true story).
I found out later ‘just cause’ for the why. One of my great friends when she has too much wine to drink at night will rewrite celebrities Wikipedia pages. (*aghast – but laughing*)

great topic as usual Nick

By Greg in NJ
June 25, 2014 at 11:18 am

I teach business classes, with an emphasis on computer & technology skills, at a public high school, and following is my favorite means of demonstrating that spell check is just one tool (and not a very smart one at that) and not the be-all/end-all of proofreading. Sadly, many of today’s teens and young adults, who are growing up in an age of spontaneous 140-character outbursts, don’t yet “get it.”

http://www.accuracyproject.org/odetospellchecker.html
(extended version of what Mark Gibson posted)

I have them type it into Word, run spell check, then let them realize/discover that the words are wrong BUT spelled correctly. They then re-type it, using the correct words, amidst a discussion of homonym vs homophone.

As these are business classes, I frequently share anecdotes from my pre-teaching days (two decades in the business world) and your column. One of my favorites is how piles of 300+ résumés are culled down to 30 or so. When I explain how ONE mistake (e.g., spelling, incomplete information, no signature, etc.) is sufficient to land one’s paperwork in the circular file, cries of “that’s not fair!” invariably erupt. We then have a conversation about things like how long the applicant had to get a couple of pages “right” and how they – who grumble at reading more than a few pages, let alone 300 – would do it. Eventually, I hear an “a-HA!” or two. For high school students, this extends to applications for college, scholarships, first jobs, etc., so the stakes are quite high. I also remind them that typically no one is going to call to tell them why they weren’t considered, or to offer a “re-do”.

Nick – know that “lessons” from your newsletters, columns, and books are trickling down to today’s students, who will be tomorrow’s workers and leaders. Perhaps you will write a book for this group? ;^)

By Greg in NJ
June 25, 2014 at 11:36 am

I’d also like to respond to the comments on computer literacy.

There’s a difference between technology literacy and informational literacy. The same kid who can help the 50-year-old set up a phone might struggle to work with the 1.3 million results from an online search. Teaching these higher-order analytical skills is a challenge for parents and teachers alike.
http://www.usd.edu/library/information-literacy-research-skills-page-5.cfm

And never, ever cite Wikipedia.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20PlHx_JjEo

BTW, I recently spoke with someone who took a course at Princeton University. He lost a full letter grade on a paper due to a SINGLE typo (that happened to be on the cover page). The professor told him he was lucky the rest of the paper was read and graded! As I tell my students, if it’s an important project, get at least two others to proofread it.

By GT
June 25, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Oh dear. You don’t know how many smart people there are out there who don’t have common sense. Spelling and grammar are part of this. My partner can take apart a generator the size of an RV, and put it together again, but he still has colloquial sayings he learned as a child. I’ve learned a balance between skills and people. (By the way, this is another area, but have you heard some schools don’t teach cursive writing?)

By Greg in NJ
June 25, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Cursive is still taught around 3rd grade in every school I’m aware of. The issue is it’s not reinforced and its use is not required after that.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html

By Dana
June 25, 2014 at 6:36 pm

In 2006, my co-worker at a university sent a message to community and school partners changing the time of a meeting. She apologized for any “incontinence” this may have caused, and honestly did not know why people laughed.

Once she asked me how to spell intendent. She knew how to spell super, but needed to write to the superintendent, and could not find intendent in the dictionary.

I spent an entire morning explaining to the same woman that .5 is the same as 1/2. She insisted that it could not be.

I have been unemployed since 2011, but she has been promoted several times.

By Annie
June 27, 2014 at 11:28 am

Hi Nick. I wanted to chime in, because I’m of mixed minds about this topic. On the one hand, I agree – grammar-lovers get a bad rap, and I think it betrays something shameful about our culture! Nothing makes me cringe worse than terrible writing.

However, it’s not wise to discuss issues of “illiteracy” and the importance of language without pointing out the race and class baggage that come along. I agree, without question, that “how you speak” is an important factor in one’s career. But it’s also a way that we erect gates to prosperity that keep out: African Americans; the poor; and in some cases, immigrants. Similarly, “dress professionally” and “act professionally” can have the same unfortunate undertones. Dressing for success often means “dress like you have money,” which requires money. “Acting professionally” can be code for “acting like us.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have boundaries around behavior. Nothing fires my “I will fire you” instinct like an employee saying “I couldn’t be bothered to X so it’s not done”. Not sharing credit appropriately? My trigger finger’s itching. Not taking responsibility for your mistakes? Out! And of course, if you’re public-facing, you have to adhere to certain standards of language and behavior.

But I would point out that these standards are TAUGHT, not inborn; and that just as companies should be willing to hire and train junior devs, they should be willing to invest in employees who are lacking some of the soft skills. I would love for everyone who has a role in hiring to have a definition of “professional” that is thoughtful and broad. It ought to be broad enough not to mean, in practice, “white and well-off.”

…And in other news, there’s this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/vocal-fry-jobs-women_n_5417810.html

By marilyn
June 27, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I find the common use of sloppy English has been elevated to an Olympic sport. The other achievement I love, love, love is beginning every damn sentence with “So”. Who started that annoyance???

By Donna Thomsen
June 27, 2014 at 8:19 pm

I’m so glad you addressed this subject. In this age of instant, electronic communications, it’s time for a refresher course on how to write a proper message. I get annoyed by people who rely on spell checkers because, as you point out, it does not flag incorrect usage. Always, always take the time to read your message with a critical eye before you send it.

Thanks again, Nick. Your website and newsletter are as useful for those lucky enough to be employed as it is for those still looking.

By Simonm
June 29, 2014 at 5:00 am

(Least) favourite howlers:

Impact: a noun meaning “a violent collision” it does not mean “to affect”, or “an effect”, or (heaven forfend!) “to effect”, which means to do or to bring about.

People who use impact and effect as synonyms must be dumbstruck when a truck hits a tree.

“Due to” relates to people; “because of” relates to things. Using them correctly enables sense to be made, concisely, of situations where both people and things interact – not uncommon really.

To procrastinate is to waste time; to prevaricate is to tell a lie. This is a common howler in the UK, thanks to a famous parliamentary exchange in the 1980s involving Margaret Thatcher.

Finally the ubiquitous “greengrocer’s apostrophe,” which has interbred with the misuse of “it’s” to create a halfling specie’s of English, characterised* by liberal use of of apostrophe’s on any word that end’s in “s”.

Its not funny. Over here in the UK, we even have them appearing on roadsign’s, on broadsheet newspaper web site’s, and even in government document…’s.

Ghastly.

And I, too, work in IT, and am very disquieted by programmers’ use of English. If they don’t think accuracy and correctness are important—in the one language we all use—why should I trust their code?

S.

*I’m English. I write in English, usually. If I wrote in American, my words would have “z” substituting for “s” and a tendency towards phonetic spelling. But I don’t, so they don’t, either.

By L.T.
June 29, 2014 at 12:16 pm

@LDellL

“… their regrettable use of English is often accompanied by other undesirable traits (not knowing how to behave in a business environment, failing to understand a problem before tackling it and rude behavior toward fellow employees …”

AMEN!

Setup: I’m diabetic, and take insulin & lunch at the same time every day. This gig doesn’t pay enough from me to eat off site at a new restaurant every day. Telling employees with computer problems (our customers) to “go the eff away until you have a ticket” gets you fired.

Problem: We have a group of developers from Someplace Else (think Bangalore) who always bring their unticketed help-desk problems to me during lunch because “we know you where you’ll be, and we want to bring them to you not to your team”.

Never mind I’m rapidly passing out from (not eating lunch) on the spot, their rude little problem won’t go away because after they enter my space, they won’t go away. Tell them
How about later” just gets you more yammer about challenges, deadlines, issues and in a thicker accent.

Where do these fresh out of college kids get their business social skills?

By Pete
June 30, 2014 at 12:31 am

I can’t believe how many Director-level people I’ve run into in the last ten years who could not write a decent memo to save their lives.

By marybeth
June 30, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Nick, you are so very right! Poorly written documents and other communications are not only a sign of ignorance but, to quote one of my faculty (from my previous job, when he was running into this program with nursing students enrolled in a doctorate program) “it makes you look uneducated and unprofessional”. It reflects badly upon you AND on your employer/business/agency, etc. This, too, is a pet peeve of mine, so I am joining you on this soapbox.

I have worked in academia for 12 years, and if anything, poor skills in English grammar, spelling, and syntax have gotten worse, not better. I think part of the reason is technology–people are used to texting, and do not bother to change when they have to write reports, memos, instructions, contracts, etc. Another reason is that they never learned how to write in school, and that includes college for those who attended college. And I truly believe another contributing factor is that many people no longer read books. If they do not read, they do not see how others compose thoughts, organize ideas, themes, plots, convey messages, structure sentences, and more.

In my current job (in a library at an inner-city community college), we do a great deal of “literacy” classes and programs for students, most of whom do not read or write at anything close to high school senior grade level (most are classified as “beginners”, meaning 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade levels, and the majority of the students have to take the remedial/developmental English classes, which do not count towards a certificate nor a degree and do not transfer should the students transfer to a four-year school). There is a growing number who are at the picture book level. It is sad, and while some of it is the poor K-12 education they received (for others, who are immigrants from 3rd world countries, it is an entirely different matter, on top of having to learn English), the other factor is poverty. Students in poor families do not have books at home, much less anyone to read to them because they lack the money to buy books for their kids and because the parent(s) are too busy working and trying to survive. Massive budget cuts for decades have gutted “services” for the needy, and the first to be cut are education. Public libraries, where students could get books for free as well as learn to use computers, attend story hours, and enjoy other programs have also seen funding cut. The third largest city in Massachusetts had cut its budget for the city’s libraries, closing branches and reducing the hours of the main library to under 20 hours per week, as well as reducing the budget for materials (books, A/V, computers, periodicals, etc.) and staff. I am not surprised that so many poor students arrive at this community college with 2nd grade reading skills and 1st grade math skills. The problem for us is how do we fix that? In most cases, we cannot, because they need so much remedial work that we cannot bring them up to college level in three years, much less a semester or less (as many are now demanding). Last semester I had an alumnus come into the library and ask me to read over his résumé and cover letter. This is something that we often do for students. He was applying for a job at a law firm through a temp agency, and in his cover letter, he had misused a word. I chuckled to myself, circled it, handed the offending document back to him and told him to correct it. The word he used, was “tenor”, which, though he spelled it correctly, was the wrong word. He should have used “tenure”, as in “during my tenure at ABC Company, I ….”. He did not understand, told me that he had run spellcheck (another pet peeve, because spellcheck is like a computer–very literal. It will not catch incorrectly used words, only those that are not spelled correctly) and that spellcheck was not wrong. At that point, I asked him what kind of job he was applying for and where, and when he told me, I told him that law firms are very fussy about correct English usage, and that not only would they notice “tenor” (as if he were asking the Metropolitan Opera for an appointment for an audition to sing in “La Traviata”!!!) but that this kind of error alone would be enough for them to throw his cover letter on the floor and do a dance on it. They would not miss the error, and certainly would not hire anyone who made such a mistake. I suggested that he find one of the many dictionaries on the tables in the reference area and look up both words. He could not understand why this was a big deal when spellcheck did not flag the error.

I have had other students come to the desk to ask for my help with the definitions of words. The last student, only last week, was struggling with a medical word. I showed him where the medical dictionary was located, and explained that looking up words he did not understand in the dictionary, or at least in the glossary in his textbook, is best. He whipped out his phone, and tried to look up the word online, but misspelled the word “dictionary” on the first two tries. Then he found a site, but did not spell the word he was trying to look up correctly, and quickly gave up, walking out but texting a friend to complain.

Every day I see errors in spelling as well as errors in usage–for example, “there” instead of “their” or “they’re”, “to” instead of “two” or “too”, even “red” instead of “read” (past tense of read) and more, more egregious grammar, usage, spelling, and syntax felonies. I cringe, make the corrections, but most of the kids do not care. They do not see the point, and with all of the trashing of English classes and degrees as “worthless”, public opinion bolsters their view that learning how to read and write and think critically is unimportant.

By marybeth
June 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Oops…errata in my first paragraph, second sentence I meant to use the word “problem”, not “program”. Mea culpa (that is what happens when my fingers move faster than my brain). The students were DNP (Doctorate of Nursing Practice/Practitioners) students, enrolled in a DNP program (so they all had to have at least a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), and many already held MSN (Masters of Science in Nursing) degrees. The professor expected them to be able to write in standard English, and was getting tired of reading “weather” in their papers, reports, and discussions when they meant “whether”. He finally told them that anyone making any more spelling or grammatical or usage and sytax errors would be docked one letter grade for each error, so three errors would mean a failing grade for his course. Naturally, the students complained bitterly to me, demanding that I make him change his policy, that they were nurses, that they were doctoral students and should not be expected to know how to write because that is not what is important. Bill (professor) and I disagreed with the students. They were taking public health courses (as required for their degree by the nursing program), and as DNP students it meant that the goal of the degree was moving them out of direct patient care (many of those with MSN degrees were already out of it) and into management, program planning, policy-making, and more. They would have to know how to read and write well, how to communicate effectively with myriad audiences. Bill and I had a good laugh over the “weather” vs. “whether” confusion, and I sympathized with his frustration with the students. This is where using a dictionary (look up the words, read and think about the definitions, and they will not confuse them) would have helped them. I backed Bill, and the students were very angry. “It is a public health course, not an English course, so I should not be judged….” was the common refrain. I beg to differ. Being able to write well in standard English is not limited to English classes, and students in all disciplines have to be able to communicate with underlings, patients, peers, supervisors, the community as a whole. Poorly written English can lead to a waste of time, waste of money (billions of dollars lost due to poorly written documents), and, in the health professions, loss of life and/or illnesses and injuries made worse, not better. The ability to write well is important across many professions.

By marybeth
June 30, 2014 at 9:43 pm

@Annie: you’re right about making a distinction between those who are not native English speakers. I remember the students in the program I used to run for whom English was a second language; many of them struggled with it, with some who could read and write English, but couldn’t speak it, while others learned to speak the language, but couldn’t read or write it well enough to be understood. I used to tell some of my faculty that there was a big, discernible difference between a student who merely needed an editor and one who needed English/writing classes. Both are surmountable, but one is much easier to overcome than the other.

I remembered one of my students, an environmental health officer with the USPHS in Alaska. He was an excellent student, doing very well in the program. One day he telephoned me to ask if we (the university) offered online English classes. He had a lower-ranked officer in the Commissioned Corps in his agency who was struggling with written English. I asked Troy for more details–having problems with written English is broad and can cover a lot of problems. Troy told me that this officer had to write reports, but they were so poorly written that the reports (and the junior officer) were an embarrassment to the agency (and I suspect to Troy). He gave me an example: he explained that in a building being inspected by this junior officer there were canisters attached to the walls, and that when/if the canisters got loose, they were very dangerous to people and property because they become missiles. Troy told me that the way the junior officer wrote the report, he made it seem that it was the PEOPLE using the buildings who were attached to the walls and who, if they got loose, became missiles and were dangerous. I started to laugh–“oh, misplaced modifiers–one of my favorites for a good laugh”. I could tell that Troy was embarrassed, and I reassured him not to be embarrassed–I could provide him with many examples of misplaced modifiers and he could see that this is not a unique problem. I also told him that perhaps his junior officer was not so far off the mark, and that sometimes I felt chained to the wall at work and that if I got loose, well, like a missile I was shot across campus! I hunted online, and when I didn’t find any basic English classes (this junior officer would probably have needed an online English 101 or even a remedial English course), I contacted an English professor to ask him if/when online English courses (undergraduate or remedial) would be offered, and explained why I was asking. The English dept. had no intention of offering online English courses at that time; perhaps things have changed now. This professor, after learning why I was inquiring, told me that all too often people don’t place importance on written and spoken English, and even reading comprehension until the lack of these basic skills start costing companies billions of dollars in lost revenues because of confusion, misunderstanding, and more. So mastery of standard English isn’t important until employees’ lack of skills in this area cost the employer money, time, and energy. In the public sector, where my former student Troy worked, having a junior officer who could not write reports in standard English despite having the public and environmental health and safety knowledge meant a huge time-sink for Troy, who, as the junior officer’s superior officer (and his direct report), had to re-write all of his reports. The junior officer’s poor English (he was a native speaker, but just never bothered to learn it in school, and didn’t care) also turned into a career-ending impediment for him. Troy told me that the ANTHC (the agency for which they worked) and the USPHS were invested in their Commissioned Corps officers, and were willing to pay for him to take English classes, to give him time at work to do his homework, etc. It just needed to be completely online due to the officers’ frequent deployments whenever there were emergencies. They gave him time to take the classes and encouraged him to master English well enough to write reports for his field (environmental health); if he didn’t take classes and master English, he wouldn’t be considered for promotion and thus for better career opportunities (to run programs and agencies, etc.) and for salary increases. You would think that those two factors alone (promotion and pay increases) would have been incentive enough for the junior officer to take some English classes, but they were not. Troy later told me that he had been given chances and a finally a deadline, which he squandered and missed. So although he has the science and environmental health knowledge, he lacked the ability to write in standard English, so his career stalled. No promotions, no raises. Troy told me “you can have all the public health knowledge in the world, but if you can’t communicate what you know to your audience, and that might be underlings, peers, supervisors, other practitioners who are not in USPHS, the military, patients, the community, other public health or health care practitioners (e.g., doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc.), then it doesn’t do you or anyone any good.” Troy is right. Learning English is not limited to English classes, but is important in all fields, the arts, history, social and behavioral sciences, hard sciences, technology, health sciences, and even in ordinary life. Putting together toys for children, setting up computers and other electronics, fixing things around the house/apartment–you might need to be able to read instructions well enough to follow them and do the task correctly.

By Mark
July 1, 2014 at 10:20 am

http://www.bobbrooke.com/WritersCorner/paragraphswhentouse.htm

By Beller
July 4, 2014 at 5:54 pm

Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a grammarian.

I don’t care one whit about spelling or grammar. The world is becoming a melting pot and if we want to move forward, then we’d better make room for lots of bad grammar and bad spelling.

But keep it clear and keep it concise. Some of you could learn to be a little pithier.

What the hell, marybeth. I’m only one man!

By Simonm
July 5, 2014 at 5:09 am

@Beller: Grammar, etc., exist for a purpose: to make meaning clear.

Google “PowerPoint Space Shuttle” if you want to know why this is fundamentally important.

I’m glad I don’t work for you…

… pithy enough?

By Nick Corcodilos
July 5, 2014 at 11:38 am

@Beller: You might get something useful out of the concept of linguistic determinism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_determinism

The basic idea is that “language and its structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought.” If you buy that (I do), then grammar, spelling, and other constructs of language are enormously important. (I think they are.)

Another useful thing to look at is the distinction between orthographic and semantic features of language. Semantics, or the meaning of words and language, is something we all grasp. But grammar is usually mistaken for that pain-in-the-A from grade (grammar??) school. Big mistake.

I’ve got a copy of The Oxford English Grammar. There’s more to it than I ever thought – which is why it runs over 600 pages. I think of grammar as a kind of neural map of our minds that we project into the world. If the map is missing points and connections, then we can’t get from every point A to every point B. The points are the meanings of individual words; the connections are far, far more meaningful – unless they’re poorly drawn or missing altogether. You may be what you eat, but you are perceived based on how you communicate. Communication is limited without grammar, spelling, punctuation and the ability to clearly express ideas using a common code without making a lot of mistakes.

By marybeth
July 10, 2014 at 4:09 pm

@beller: my apologies. I work in higher education, and have far too many examples, some humerous, some pathetically sad, some so painful that we used to say “it must hurt to be so stupid”.

I thought Troy’s story was important because one of most common complaints from that job as well as from my current job is that “I’m not majoring in/studying English” or “this isn’t an English class so I shouldn’t have to bother with spelling, grammar, etc.”. Nothing could be further from the truth. You need to be able to write for your audience regardless of your field–writing well is not limited to journalists and authors. The junior officer in Troy’s office is now at a career dead-end. He’s unpromottable and isn’t eligible for raises. What sank him was not his public health knowledge but being unable to write in standard English. That is a shame, but the lesson is that even if you are in a non-English field, even in STEM, you still need to be able to read and write English.

Another one of my former students, now a Colonel in the Air Force, told me that he struggled with English for years and years, all through school, and through college. It wasn’t until he had to write reports for the AF that his commanding officers noticed he couldn’t write, and promptly sent him to English classes at local colleges as well as with the AF. He told me that there, well after earning his bachelor’s degree, did he learn that the purpose of writing is to communicate, and that his professors broke it down so he learned how it is done. I was surprised by his story, because he wrote so very well. He also told me that one of his commanding officers had been an English major in college, and was very particularly about how Richard (my student) wrote, went over his reports, and had him re-write them if there were errors. Clear communication in the military is critical, and poor written communication can lead to death (of troops).

The reference books mentioned are all excellent sources. Strunk and White’s book does a great job, and while I do like the OED and the OEG, there are plenty of American dictionaries that will also get the job done: Merriam-Webster, American College, etc. I also recommend a thesaurus–Roget’s is very good. Anyone who doesn’t want to invest in these books can find them for free at any public library (and many have dictionaries that circulate as well).

By marybeth
July 10, 2014 at 4:28 pm

I have two more interesting stories:

1.) My SIL’s sister teaches math at a state college here in MA and has a Ph.D in mathematics. After she defended her dissertation, she learned that the faculty committee had voted NOT to pass her for two reasons. The first was political–she picked two professors who didn’t like or respect eachother professionally, so one of them didn’t like it that she had favored his colleague’s theories and required her to change it. The second was her poor written English. Her dissertation was full of mistakes, and none of the three faculty on her committee would pass her until she cleaned up her dissertation–correct the grammatical, spelling, and syntax errors. Her family could not understand why the math faculty would not pass her based on her writing, because math is not English, so her English shouldn’t matter. Sheesh…..when you’re getting a Ph.D, it is a very big deal, your dissertation is your contribution to your field, it is published, so it must be written in standard English. This is in addition to the subject matter content. There was a happy ending; Maura fixed the content and hired an editor to help her with the written English, and got her Ph.D.

In my last job, I handled admissions along with a faculty member for the program I ran. We had an applicant who, in her personal statement, wrote “cannon” when she should have written “canon”. Ouch. That is one of those “painful” mistakes. Spell check did not catch the error because she spelled cannon correctly but did not realize that she should have used the other canon. Paula and I howled with laughter, and for months afterwards I would funny emails from her with cartoon characters of Napoléon or Wellington firing their cannons. Had the applicant been applying for graduate admission to the history dept. and writing about a particular interest, it would have been fine, but in public health, not so much. Paula sat on admissions in her other dept., and my applicant was used as a bad example when that committee met. They, too, howled with laughter. Incidently, we did NOT admit the applicant, and she was talked about for more than two years as the one who used “cannon” in her essay (as a prime example of ignorance and of the kind of student these two programs did NOT want and would not admit).

Poor writing can adverse impacts on your career, on getting in graduate programs, on a number of things, so it is important to master this skill.

By LE
September 20, 2014 at 8:35 pm

Advice needed!
My writing critique group has one member (unilaterally brought in by one other member) who is functionally illiterate. Everyone else–mostly literate types–ignores the back-to-back errors and painful mangling of the English language. Personally, I don’t care if she’s ignorant, but why is she in my crit group and why won’t anyone else critique her writing? Oh: English is her first language.

By 4 Words and Phrases Businesses Are Using Wrong | Oak and Irony
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[…] Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance by Nick Corcodilos, Corcodilos.com […]

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