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Like It or Not, Grammar Matters When the Stakes Are High—and Here’s Why

Some people love grammar; some people hate grammar. Some people love serving dutifully as the “grammar police,” while others enjoy ridiculing grammar fanatics.

Grammar Can Be Arbitrary

I’m going to let you in on a little secret most people don’t know: grammar can be arbitrary. Really. In English, some of our most rigid “rules” have no basis historically. They became rules because someone decided they should be. Take, for instance, a split infinitive (which is when an infinitive is interrupted by another word). In actuality, it is not improper to split infinitives. The same can be said of ending a sentence with a preposition, depending on the context. Nevertheless, even if you and I know the world will continue spinning if I write “to quickly walk” rather than “to walk quickly,” the perceptions that people have about what constitutes proper grammar matter.  (And the fact remains that not all grammar is arbitrary.)

If we accept that many people have strong beliefs about good grammar, then we must take grammar seriously, especially in professional settings.

Edit and Proofread to Eliminate Grammatical Errors

So don’t be afraid of the red pen! If you are applying for a job, graduate school, an internship, or college, you must submit documents that have been edited and proofread meticulously. People will judge you based on your ability to write your application materials well, including your resumes, CVs, cover letters, statements of purpose, and your college essays. Especially when writing “high stakes” documents that will be judged among many other—possibly even thousands of—applicants, bad grammar can be your kiss of death. Moreover, Millennials are facing scrutiny for being too informal. This bias can result in a person judging a younger applicant’s grammatical error more negatively than an older applicant’s mistake.

Businesses must not overlook the importance of impeccable grammar either. Once I saw a business card that had the following tagline: “Reliable. Qualty. Professional.” Whoops!  Granted, misspelling “quality” is more of a typo than a grammatical error, but the conclusion is the same. The reader will doubt the quality of the business (pun intended).

To illustrate the need for good grammar for a job seeker, read the following sentences, which could appear at the end of an exceptionally well-crafted cover letter:

“Thank you for you’re consideration. Its been a pleasure corresponding with you about this opportunity, and I look forward to hearing from you in the future.”

A reader would likely toss the application to Pile B (the “No” pile) because of those sentences, even if everything else in the application seemed perfect. Why? If a person makes a careless mistake once (“you’re” instead or “your”), she can hope the reader will not catch it or will understand that proofreading mistakes happen to all of us now and again.

But two errors (also “Its” instead of “It’s”) will probably be considered inexcusable. Why? Those two errors reflect on the applicant’s attention to detail, ability to write well, and general attitude. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But it is reality.

Most schools, employers, and selection committees are overwhelmed with applicants, and they need to look for ways to weed people out. Of course, some people may get accepted even with a grammatical error or two. But that’s not a risk I recommend taking.

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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