Knowing good grammar is a social skill

Knowing good grammar is a social skill

My friend is staying at my apartment while he job hunts in Boston. My job hunts were always done in pajamas with a jeans-and-T-shirt interview finale. Micah is in sales and his hunt starts with a trip to a clothing store.

While he hops in and out of dressing rooms becoming friends with everyone, I settle into a spot with the mannequins.

Then I say, “Micah! Hey! Did you know the most reliable way to speed up a job hunt is to have a professional rewrite your resume?”

Micah stops and looks at me. Sales guys are always attentive, even if you annoy them.

“So, not that I don’t love living with you, but I’m rewriting your resume.”

A lot of times when I rewrite a resume it’s so much better than the original that the person has to learn to talk about themselves differently. We underestimate ourselves because we’re in the thick of things when it’s our own career. A good resume rewrite makes you feel like a different, much more successful person.

Most people take a week or two to get used to talking about themselves at a higher level. Salespeople can adjust right away, which Micah did. Then he started making little changes for each job. And ruining the resume.

“Micah! Are you a total numbskull?! You can’t have a bulleted list with one bullet! It’s not a list if there’s only one thing!”

I told him he has a huge indentation where there shouldn’t be any. He thought I was crazy. He thought no one would notice.

This reminds me of when I was doing a lot of public speaking. I wore jeans. Even when I was getting paid $15K per speech, I wore jeans. Even when I was speaking to a coat-and-tie audience, I wore jeans.

My agent told me to stop wearing jeans. I told my agent my content is so good that no one notices what I wear. So he stopped booking me.

The problem is blind spots. And part of the art of making it through adult life is to learn our blind spots before they completely undermine us.

This is a good time to complain about tests we administer to ourselves. I have already published a tirade about personality tests –  why nearly 50% of people get inaccurate results when they test themselves.

But another example is that the are you a sociopath tests don’t work because the ENTPs and ESTPs are always excited to test as a sociopath. They think it’s funny. So they inadvertently skew the results.

Also, when you have someone test to see if they have Asperger’s, most of the time they will say their social skills are fine. That’s because people with Asperger’s don’t know what counts as a social skill. For example, meeting deadlines, sticking with the group, saying I’m sorry. These are all social skills that people with poor social skills don’t count.

I see the phrase “appropriate attire” a lot. Well, maybe not a lot now, but I did a lot when I was 13 in the ’70s and I was receiving tons of formal bat mitzvah invitations. But anyway, that phrase doesn’t mean you have to knock it out of the park with an outfit straight from the runway. It means just look like you fit in.

The same is true with appropriate grammar. People just need to know basics. As a former copyeditor, I know that one should not capitalize a job title unless the job title comes directly before a person’s name who is doing that job. The number of people who violate this rule is so large that breaking that rule is like wearing white after Labor Day: Whatever.

But those mistakes on Micah’s resume are on the list of must-be-fixed. And, here’s a list off the top of my head of common grammar errors I see on resumes from very smart people:

Do not use jargon as a way to abbreviate because you need everyone at the prospective company to be able to read your resume.

Always abbreviate state names unless you’re a calligrapher getting paid per letter.

Don’t write Inc. on your resume unless you worked at Inc. Magazine. No one cares about the incorporation papers of the companies you worked for.

Recognize rules are flexible, but no rules are random.Put periods at the end of non-sentences. Or not. Capitalize long prepositions in a headline. Or not. Abbreviate months. Or not. But be consistent; whatever you choose, do it every time.

Maintain past tense even for a job that you are still doing. If you are writing a good resume, you are writing about a moment in time when you were great. If you are writing about something you do every day, meaning you are still doing it, then stop writing that. A resume is about accomplishments and the second you accomplish something it becomes past tense.

Give your verb an object as a way to make sure you look great. Consider the difference between Emma ate. And Emma ate something. The latter is a specific time with a specific outcome. People get hired for making a specific impact at the places they work.

Don’t use quotation marks unless you literally refer to a person who you then quote verbatim. But if you are quoting someone verbatim on your resume, delete it. What are you thinking? The only acceptable quote would be from someone who is so famous that they can just make a phone call and get you the job without you sending a resume at all.

27 replies
  1. Elliot Rosen
    Elliot Rosen says:

    Unless your job includes creating craters or doing something with molars, don’t use impact when you mean effect.

    And, I don’t care if it has made it into the dictionary; functionality, which means function by the way, is not a word.

  2. Austin
    Austin says:

    Great salespeople don’t need resumes. I have never gotten a job with a resume and don’t use it as a crutch nor talked ever to Headhunters. When I ran a large salesforce the resume I looked at was the persons W2 forms for the last 2 years. Very effective. And, the salespeople who called me directly were the ones I would speak to and not the ones who sent me a resume. If they cant get on the phone and call me directly that to me shows a bit of a problem.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a totally fascinating comment. I love this. I’m showing it to Micah right now. And looking at a W2. So great. Salespeople are so hardcore.


    • JB
      JB says:

      I run a large sales team and definitely agree with this. If a salesperson reaches out to me I just think “eh, not sure why you are out looking.” So they would have to be very convincing on what is happening in the current company that they haven’t found a way to make it work. I also go look at the LinkedIn connections and see if we know someone in common that I can just ask if they are good or suck at sales. I generally hire people from my network that I go convince to work for me, or that come to me through some kind of personal recommendation. Sales jobs are weird that way, the resume is just sort of an after thought for the HR file when you do hire them.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I’ve noticed that young men from India (and perhaps also China?) seem to believe — or believe it’s cool — that using “wanna” instead of typing “want to” is correct. Or maybe they believe they are being cool.

    Hint: using wanna sounds like the person writing is about 11 years old. Don’t use it.

    • Elliot
      Elliot says:

      You may want to spend a little more time on social media chat to learn that ‘wanna’ is very common and not associated with certain groups of people. They aren’t from some far away Asian-y place. They are from urban, suburban and rural Western-y places. It makes me wanna scream but whatcha gonna do?

      • Anonymous
        Anonymous says:

        Haha . . . thanks for widening field.

        Have to sort of wonder if they carry those verbal low-quality components into the workplace?

  4. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Way to keep it real Penny.
    I wish I could afford your resume service… but then, I’d have to actually depart from my inertia mindset and do something about my situation when the interview offers come in :(


  5. Mysticaltyger
    Mysticaltyger says:

    I’m curious about your views on bad spelling. I, personally, think it’s really rude to not know how to spell words you should’ve mastered in elementary school. I’m talking about knowing the difference between they’re/their/there, your/you’re, affect/effect, and even then & than. Before I cam on the internet, I didn’t even know it was possible to get those last two wrong!

    It seems to me a lot of people don’t care and don’t even try. To me, this sort of bad spelling says “I don’t care about basic rules. I will do whatever the hell I want”. It just seems really wrong that people don’t care to spell 4 and 5 letter words correctly. Am I wrong to think that?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      After you’ve looked at your resume 50 times you can’t reliably proofread for typos. So you have to have a friend who can do it. And then we are judging resumes by how many proofreading friends a person has. So I don’t care that much about typos if I know it’s a typo and not ignorance.

      And most people make mistakes with homonyms. Sometimes out of ignorance. If you tested a company of 100 people and kicked out everyone who doesn’t know how to properly use effect vs. affect you’d have no one left working there. And I think, well, who really cares? Because in order to know which one to use you have to be pretty strong at grammar. And then I did a quick check to find out what to do in the case of an intransitive verb case, and Websters says here that there are cases when effect is a verb. So I think maybe we need to start using those two words interchangeably (which really probably everyone is already doing except for the people who have read this far…)

      Also, people who definitely know when to use you’re vs. your or it’s vs. its make the mistake all the time. It’s a really difficult part of being a native English speaker.

      Oh. Hm. Maybe homonyms will be a prestige thing going forward. If you learn English as a second language you’re not nearly as likely to make the mistake. So in the future, when everyone knows English from using live chat on video games, mistaking it’s for its will be a sneaky way to be a snob.


      • Dana S.
        Dana S. says:

        Everybody needs at least one proofreading friend BUT if she starts screening your calls, reading your draft aloud to yourself — like a table read of a script — can help you catch errors (e.g. missing words, “an” when you meant and, led vs. lead).

        It sounds silly and you will be tempted to rush through it. DON’T BE TEMPTED. Intentionally focus on each word as you say it aloud or your brain will auto-magically fill in your missing word(s) or letter(s). One of my mentees, a non-native English speaker, says I got him hooked on this 10+ years ago. Try it!

      • Mysticaltyger
        Mysticaltyger says:

        I am a bit of a grammar nerd, so while I concede maybe I place too much emphasis, on it, I ultimately disagree.

        I think you cited research years ago from psychologist Ray Baumeister about how being disciplined in one area of live spills over in a positive way into other aspects of life I believe the exercise he had people do was to pay attention to their posture. It turned out they ate less junk food and saved more money as positive side effects. Long term longitudinal studies–See book “The Longevity Project”–have shown that students who were rated as highly conscientious by their teachers at age 10 lived typically longer than other students, on average. I suspect paying attention to things like grammar, spelling, and punctuation would have similar side effects.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for posting the link to your “screed”. I think the truth is I am laid back about grammar until I’m not. I probably need a better policy….


  6. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    I can think of two spy thrillers where the chief insisted on correct grammar and words, as did Sir Winston Churchill, so I think there is something to it… maybe some sort of inner determination to be alert and clear in facing reality.

    Churchill wouldn’t let people write they were fighting with the enemy. They were fighting against.

  7. Jessica INTJ
    Jessica INTJ says:

    Future employers don’t care about your previous accomplishments; they only care about your skills. And no one reads your resume; they only interview people who are referred by someone they trust.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The title of this post is ‘good grammar’ and you list common grammar errors. An equally important aspect of a good resume is the organization and layout. You don’t specifically address those things in the first half of the post leading up to grammar but you reference them indirectly and directly a few times. Things like your style of dress compared to Micah’s, bulleted lists, and indents. When someone reads something, anything they’re searching for certain pieces of information. So the easier it is read and find that information, the more the reader appreciates it. It leaves the reader with a more favorable impression of you and makes you stand out from the rest of the applicants. So in addition to grammar, the length of a paragraph, the amount of space between paragraphs and sections of the document, character font, margins, etc. are all things to pay attention to as they’re much like a person’s attire and do make a difference.

  9. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    In some of my college classes a bit of dishonesty was OK. You could ask to speak to the class for “two seconds” and then take two minutes or five minutes.

    My most respected teacher, though, would insist you be honest, and first estimate whether you wanted two or five minutes of class time.

    To me, using correct grammar and words is a form of honesty that I respect.

  10. me
    me says:

    Having good grammar also affects the dating world.

    Came across an online profile yesterday: “I have not ate veal for the last 2o years.”

    Ugh. No thanks: next ….

    • Mysticaltyger
      Mysticaltyger says:

      Yeah, I feel the same way about it when I see really bad spelling and grammar in texts. I don’t expect perfection, but OMG, some of the stuff I see!

  11. Maria
    Maria says:

    If you want to stop worrying about how to write your application, I can recommend hiring a writing service for applications. My recommendation is to hire someone to write an application. For my last application, I chose . It is a service based in Germany, but they also work in English. It is a professional former HR managers who know exactly how to write a great application. It helped me out a lot and saved me a lot of stress.

  12. Emily Henderson
    Emily Henderson says:

    That is really interesting about the personality tests! I like to take them but I pretty much consistently score as INTJ, even when I think I am skewing my results by stretching the truth on an answer. I never fully fake my answers, I answer truthfully to my behavior, but sometimes I’ll think I am taking a risk on an answer, and I anticipate a result other than INTJ– but it’s always the same result!

    I also appreciate the nod to acceptable professional attire and how you tied it into appropriate use of grammar. If you are having a conversation in the workplace and you are overheard by someone important, even if your conversation was totally casual, you could be judged for how well you speak and articulate your thoughts. Same goes for how you look! Even if you do not interact one-on-one with an influential person in the office, if they see you and notice how sharply dressed you look, you’ve made a favorable impression without even realizing it. I think this is a similar favorable impression which you can inadvertently make as a good speaker. or should I say, well-articulated speaker?

    I feel fortunate to work in an environment that pushes me to improve my grammar every day. I freelance as a writer at Ultius, Inc: It’s a work from home opportunity so I do not need to worry about how I dress but I definitely need to make sure I use correct grammar. Every time I create a draft, I am putting my thoughts into an articulate and well formulated set of phrases. I have people who look over my work before it reaches the client so that if I missed a serious grammar rule, I don’t send the draft like that to the client. Having people that have my back and help me improve my writing is so valuable to me. The more I write, the better I seem to get. Ultius is a huge support for freelance writers like me who want to continue honing their craft. :-)

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