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Why Good Grammar Matters

By Donna McTavish

It is true that we are defined by our language. Stephen Fry, self-confessed  ‘celebrant at the altar of language’, has spoken more eloquently than most on this subject. Language is, he says, “the breath of God”, the lifeline that allows us to express our dreams and ideas. Language is critical to how we build relationships and to how we present ourselves to others and grammar, punctuation and spelling are our essential tools.

If we are honest with ourselves we know that we also use language to make judgements. It might not be comfortable to admit, but who hasn’t formed an impression based on sloppy spelling in an email or a poorly punctuated resumé? Is the writer ignorant, lazy or just careless, we wonder?

First Impressions

Is this fair? In 2012, the Harvard Business Review posted an article with the headline ‘I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why’. The article generated heated debate online but it was the comment that poor grammar is an indication of general attitude, learning ability and work performance that really got the online chatter going, and it got me thinking.

In today’s competitive market, creating a good first impression is vital. Sometimes a first impression is formed before a single word has been uttered and the words we choose when we speak and the tone we adopt say volumes about our personal or professional brand. Or do they?

As many of the comments in the HBR blog were quick to point out, what does it matter if a person uses correct syntax or spelling if they are employed for their computer programming/ financial analysis/selling skills? What is the problem, they ask?

Context

According to Fry there is no problem. He says “There is no right or wrong language. Context, convention and circumstance are all. What offends is the notion that sloppy language implies an attitude of not caring and if you are looking for a job or a promotion this can be a problem. It’s a question of making language fit for purpose and nothing to do with correctness. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too”.

Is it a deal breaker?

There is an increasing number of people who either don’t want to, or are not able to, adapt their language as Fry suggests.

Perhaps not many employers will go to the extreme lengths of the CEO who won’t hire anyone who can’t pass a grammatical test but there is a growing level of concern within corporate corridors at the number of recruits who don’t know their ‘its’ from there [sic!] ‘it’s’ and it’s a genuine, and understandable, concern.

In a 2012 survey of 430 employers in the US, about 45 percent said they were increasing employee-training programs to improve employees’ language skills, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Most participants in the survey blamed the lack of education and skill in younger workers for the skills gap but this simplifies the issue.

The problem isn’t necessarily ignorance but a shift of values and priorities in a generation that has grown up texting, tweeting and instant messaging. It’s quite possible that they don’t view correct grammar, punctuation or spelling as an indication of intelligence or credibility. Capitals? Commas? Colons?  They just don’t care.

Professional Success

But employers still care and a poorly presented resumé can be a deal breaker for job seekers and, once in the door, poor grammar can limit opportunities for future success. There is some evidence to support this, albeit anecdotal.

An analysis of the LinkedIn profiles of one hundred native English speakers found that professionals with fewer grammar errors in their profiles achieved higher positions within their organisations. Fewer errors also correlated with more frequent job changes and a faster rate of career advancement. As with any small sample group, the results are by no means conclusive but the fact that there is a link between good grammar skills and professional success would pass the common sense test for most employers.

For the moment at least, good grammar may just be good for you, your brand and your business.

The original version of this article was published in Employment Today, May 2014.

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