Thursday, August 16, 2012

Jobs, Money, and Love for All

Good grammar and spelling skills make your life better.

From Education Week, a teacher's blog post about an employer who screens job candidates to weed out those with poor English grammar skills:

In a fiery post for the Harvard Business Review, Wiens says he flat out won't hire people who are careless with grammar. And to ensure that no offenders slip through, both of his companies—Wiens is also the founder of the documentation-software maker Dozuki—have instituted mandatory grammar tests as part of the hiring process.
Before I read the source post by Kyle Wiens for Harvard Business Review, I had mixed feelings. Is this really necessary for candidates who aren't writers? I know so many smart, capable people who use--oh, let's call it "nonstandard grammar." They're not writers, and so I switch off the inner critic before I read their email messages.

But Wiens makes a compelling argument:
Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts. 
In the same vein, programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code. You see, at its core, code is prose. Great programmers are more than just code monkeys; according to Stanford programming legend Donald Knuth they are "essayists who work with traditional aesthetic and literary forms." The point: programming should be easily understood by real human beings — not just computers. 
And just like good writing and good grammar, when it comes to programming, the devil's in the details. In fact, when it comes to my whole business, details are everything. 
He's right that details matter.

You can even put a price on details. According to a 2004 article in The New York Times, one spelling mistake can cost as much as $198:
Mr. Green once bought a box of gers for $2. They were gears for pocket watches, which he cleaned up and put back on the auction block with the right spelling. They sold for $200. 
An article published by BBC News in 2011 calculates the cumulative costs:
An online entrepreneur says that poor spelling is costing the UK millions of pounds in lost revenue for Internet businesses.
Wayne State University assistant professor Fred Vultee, who conducted a study sponsored by the American Copy Editors' Society, found that not only can readers distinguish edited from unedited text, but they notice and are troubled by errors (more here). Said Vultee, "Editing makes a difference. It's across the board, it's not imaginary, and it's reasonably big."

And if that weren't enough, errors in spelling and grammar can also inhibit romance: "In a survey of more than 5,000 members asking about the most common profile mistakes, 51% complained about profiles with poor spelling or grammar...."

Over the last almost twenty years, I've worked with writers whose English language skills range from impeccable to not. When I say "not," I don't mean to pick on anyone who makes an occasional typo or some other minor mistake. It's very difficult to proof one's own work; the brain insists on making the text appear as you know it should appear. I use "not" for those whose work displays not just a repeated pattern of error, but sometimes repeated patterns of different types of errors, even after those same types of errors have been pointed out to the writer previously.

Is it prejudice to expect that people whose trade is writing should have strong language skills? Maybe. For me, it's work avoidance; writers who make lots of mistakes cause me lots of extra work. Which means I can verify that mistakes have a cost, because if I need writers, my first calls are to the ones whose writing causes me the least work in terms of content and style.

I don't fault anyone for not knowing something; we all of us stumble on our ignorance sometimes. And yet, it works against us to cling to that ignorance once we become aware of it.

Toward the goal of jobs, money, and love for all, I offer the following resources:
Grammar & Style: Grammar Guides, Style Guides, APA,
HyperGrammar at the University of Ottawa
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Pam Nelson: Grammar Guide
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk, E.B. White, and Roger Angell
The Purdue Online Writing Lab
Top Ten Resources on Spelling and Word Study

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