Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance

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!

: :