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Grammar and the Modern Employee

July 30, 2012

A Hot Topic

A recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog about the importance of proper grammar is more than just a lament on the state of “these kids today and their texting” (although there is a bit of that).  It’s a strong argument for refusing to hire those who can’t use commas correctly or differentiate between “they’re” and “their.”

As a teacher of writing, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue.  While grammar exercises and tests don’t teach much or fully assess a person’s writing competence, proper grammar does correlate with other skills.  As the author of the post puts it,

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.

The suggestion is that people who care enough about grammar to make sure theirs is correct are the same people who will double-check their work in other situations.  Moreover, the author of the post implies that those who haven’t learned grammar rules by the time they graduate from college have simply not been paying attention.  Certainly, such a lack might indicate that the potential employee is not much of a reader.

It’s a fraught question, especially when the author mentions English Language Learners (previously referred to as ESL or second-language speakers).  But what’s particularly interesting is the heated debate going on in the comments section.  Arguments about what constitutes “proper” grammar, whether it correlates with other skills, and whether it should be a factor in the hiring process are all explored in surprising depth (at least for a comments section).

I have to admit that I fall, perhaps not all the way at the hard edge this author occupies (claiming to deny jobs to those who can’t differentiate between “to” and “too” on a grammar test, for example), but certainly well within the realm of the grammarians.  At the same time, I’ve worked with enough students over the years to know that poor grammar does not always correlate with bad ideas or low intelligence or drive–nor does proper grammar necessarily correlate with job skills, innovative thinking, or content knowledge.

What do you think?  Is grammar a fundamental skill?  Does the inability to learn how to use “it’s” after 20 years of schooling indeed signal a learning or motivation deficit, as the article suggests?

How important is grammar, really?  What “counts” as proper grammar?  And who should get to decide, especially if it might cost you your job?

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One Comment
  1. “Is grammar a fundamental skill?”
    It depends what anyone means by a fundamental skill. If it means using a verb where you ought to be using a noun, or using an adverb where you should be using a pronoun, then yes – it’s a fundamental skill. However, virtually no-one makes these kinds of errors – not even our youngest children, on the whole, in their developing speech. Therefore someone who can’t even write but who speaks perfectly grammatically might be worth employing as long as writing isn’t part of their job description.

    However, I agree with the suggestion here that “people who care enough about grammar to make sure theirs is correct are the same people who will double-check their work in other situations”, with the proviso that’s it’s often not so much the grammar that needs double-checking as careless mistakes in writing – words missed out, mis-spellings, inappropriate use of certain words, etc. In my experience this often correlates with people who are not meticulous, who have no particular love of language, and who are simply too lazy or too preoccupied with other things to slow down and proof-read properly – or even to seek help with proof-reading.

    In other words, some people simply don’t have the right attitude or the right character to do work, including writing, that requires attention to detail and a determination not to make careless mistakes – and poor quality writing might be a give-away in this regard.

    On the other hand, these sorts of people might make up for their deficiencies as writers by being highly creative, innovative, original thinkers or brilliant at managing people and at leadership skills, in which case they could use a good secretary or a PA to make up for their tendencies to write carelessly and their failure to proof-read adequately.

    Ultimately it’s a question of putting together balanced teams in the workplace, and it’s as much of a mistake to employ only the slow, careful, meticulous types as it is to employ only high-energy, sparky, imaginative types who rush from one activity to the next. Obviously the ideal is to employ only ‘balanced’ individuals who possess both sets of abilities and virtues – but as we know, such individuals tend to be very hard to find.

    Having said all that, my own preference is to go for people who are good writers, who can express themselves well in writing, even if they make the odd error or typo, since those who are good at writing are often those who are good at thinking. Set against that I’d say that if I wanted a garden to look good then I’d employ a good gardener, and if I wanted a fire to be extinguished then I’d want someone who was good at putting out fires, regardless of their ability to write a good essay or to produce an error-free memorandum.

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