Why Good Grammar Matters

By Donna McTavish, English for Business Limited

donnaA company refusing to hire people who use poor grammar prompts the question: how important is grammar in a business context in an age where texting and tweeting are the new normal? Donna McTavish shares her thoughts.

In 2012, the Harvard Business Review posted an article with the headline “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” By his own admission, the author is a grammar geek and he needs to be. His company creates open source manuals for everything from Harley-Davidsons to polaroid cameras, so employees with good English skills are critical in his business.

Over 3900 people responded to the article which is impressive even for the HBR. Many were skeptical of the author’s elitist attitude and some clearly enjoyed picking (grammatical) holes in the article. Grammar, it seems, is an emotive subject and one that we all feel qualified to comment on.

It was the author’s comment that poor grammar is an indication of general attitude, learning ability and work performance that really got the blog chatter going, and it got me thinking.

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”. It’s the lifeline that allows us to express our thoughts, dreams and ideas. It’s critical to how we build relationships and to how we present ourselves to others, and grammar, punctuation and spelling are our essential tools.

First Impressions

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?

Is this fair? 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?

According to Fry there is no problem. What offends employers when confronted with extremely informal unpunctuated and haywire language is the undertone of not caring. “You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too” he says.

It’s a question of making language fit for purpose and nothing to do with correctness. “There’s no right or wrong language. Context, convention and circumstance are all.”

Employers, however, face a problem because there is an increasing number of people who either don’t want to, or are not able to, adapt their language as Fry suggests. Brand management, be it personal or professional, is an essential ingredient for success and whether we like it or not, grammar and other language skills are important for brand credibility.

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

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.

Deal Breaker

But employers still care and a poorly presented resumé is more often than not likely to be a deal breaker. Once in the door and on the promotion pathway, poor grammar is still likely to limit opportunities for future success and there is some evidence to support this, albeit anecdotal.

After analysing the LinkedIn profiles of 100 native English speakers in the consumer packaged goods industry, Brad Cooper of Grammarly (an automated grammar checker) found that professionals with fewer grammar errors in their LinkedIn profiles achieved higher positions within their organisations.

He also found that fewer grammatical errors correlated with more frequent job changes and a faster rate of career advancement. As with any small sample group, these results are by no means conclusive proof of causality, but the fact that there is some link between good grammar skills and professional success would pass the common sense test for most employers.

Our HBR blogger might be on to something after all. Good grammar may just be good business.

Donna McTavish
English for Business Limited

(Article published in Employment Today, June 2014 Edition)


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