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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58 Comments on “Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance”
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.

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[…] Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance by Nick Corcodilos, Corcodilos.com […]

By MHT
January 31, 2015 at 11:34 am

Boy, do I agree! But the corporate world apparently doesn’t consider illiteracy to be a problem. I had one boss who couldn’t send an email without misspelling every other word. (She was also the Queen of Mean). Can you guess the result? She got a promotion.

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