IT Employment

Would you hire someone with poor grammar skills?

Think grammar isn't important in the world of IT? That misconception could cost you a job.

When TechRepublic runs a blog about grammar issues that can cost you a job interview or that make you look stupid, we get a lot of feedback. Usually the feedback is from people who want to point out other grammar mistakes that we may have failed to mention. Some of the feedback is from people who take the position that a good command of grammar does not indicate a more competent employee.

I'm not a grammar Nazi, but I have to admit that I think less of a person's ability if they don't know the correct usage of "they're," "there," and "their." I don't care so much about split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition. Those may be strictly forbidden but modern usage has made them more accepted.

I came across a piece in the Harvard Business Review written by Kyle Wiens that I like a lot. He explains why he won't hire a person who uses poor grammar. Not only does he toss resumes if they have any kind of grammatical mistake, he says,

Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can't distinguish between "to" and "too," their applications go into the bin.

Of course, one of the reasons he's so fervent is the nature of his business -- he owns iFixit.com, the world's largest online repair manual. But even those who don't write for the manual, like programmers, are tested. He says that programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also pay more attention to how they code.

He's also 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.

He says, and this is the best way I've ever heard it put, "If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use 'it's,' then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with."

I'd like to get a reading on the managers out there on this topic. Please take the poll below and give us your feelings on the importance of good grammar in a job candidate.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

414 comments
apotheon
apotheon

Your attention to detail is lacking. I didn't say that Einstein didn't need any attention to detail at all. I said he needed no attention to fine, mundane detail.

lovcom
lovcom

Einstein was well known to have poor spelling skills in his native German, and his 2nd language English. Poor spelling does not necessarily reflect low IQ. However this is not to say that poor spelling is excused. Worse case it suggest the person needs to be more mindful of his/her communication skills.

Malkie
Malkie

@wizard57m-cnet 1. Perhaps you should find another programming language if you're still using GoTo. 2. Perhaps you should find another IDE if you're absolutely stuck using a language that requires GoTo, and the IDE allows GoToo in a location in the code in which GoTo is legal.

moucon
moucon

In one word... NO. Part of our hiring process is written, and if they don't know your from you're and there/their/they're..... I don't want them around.

robgrie
robgrie

Yes, it pushes me very near the brink of insanity when I see someone who writes for a living but doesn't know when to use "there", "their" or "they're". I'm no expert on perfect grammar (as I'm sure is painfully evident), nor do I care to be, but there are a number of other factors to include when making the decision whether to hire someone. If their grammar stinks, I'll not make the decision then and there, but I'll definitely scrutinize all other aspects more closely, and not just their technical abilities. (Obviously run-on sentences aren't among my criteria.) If the person in question is less than 35 years of age, I'll probably not hold them entirely to blame for poor grammar; I was reading some place recently an article written by a high school teacher that only knew one form of the words all pronounced like "there". Simply astounding. Give us a hundred more years and dictionaries will be leaflet sized.

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

When I see really poor grammar, I think of an Abbot and Costello routine. Abbott: "Didn't you go to school, Stupid?" Costello: "Yeah, and I came out the same way..." (Funnier when listened to, rather than read.)

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

The inability of too many people to express themselves cuts across all of society. The ability to write simple declarative sentences, organize them into well-structured paragraphs, and arrange the paragraphs into an understandable document, is not taught in schools. It should be, and should be an absolute requirement for graduating from high school. If you can't write clearly, or do math, YOU DO NOT GRADUATE. Period. No exceptions. Is it wrong to reject a programming candidate who can't write well? Yes, because it shows a failure to pay attention to detail, as well as to make an effort to learn a necessary skill. This problem is thrown into sharp relief by the fact that many companies expect illiterate (and I use that word deliberately) programmers to write product documentation! This is crazy -- not to mention CHEAP. Businesses should hire full-time writers to work with the developers to produce easily read, genuinely useful documentation. They don't, which is one of the reasons why thousands of good technical writers can't find work. In 2011, I worked with developers at Intel in Oregon. One of them was an ex-Marine drill sergeant. (No kidding. He was a dead ringer for Sterling Hayden.) He was absolutely nuts about good documentation. And he could deliver. He wrote several sections of the manual I was working on -- and they needed only minor editing.

sabihahmed
sabihahmed

If the person is technical and his / her work does not related to writing or communicating - then NO! But if someone is associated with the work that requires a good writing skills, then definitely YES!

Bret Waldow
Bret Waldow

[q]My most favourite obtuse is still if (!(Not_ConditionFlag != 'Y')) Never did figure out how the moron who wrote that, got there.[/q] With this 'genericised' (Kiwi spelling) example it's impossible to know, but there can be a good reason for such code - it reflects the real-world domain the code implements. "Flattening" such code to a simple logical equivalent might lose the link to the extant expression of a real-world domain rule, and even if the real-world is silly losing that information may be more costly than leaving the awkward expression. An anlogous situation is the semi-regular jokes about simplifying spelling: [q]http://www.techwr-l.com/archives/9306/techwhirl-9306-00239.html[/q] But the reality is we don't write "knight" because we spell wrong, but rather because we pronounce wrong - the fellow in armor serving the king is a "k'nikket", and we stopped saying the word correctly. In this case, the loss of information isn't so important to us now. But sometimes the awkward statement is a direct representation of domain/culture knowledge that isn't subject to simplification and the realisation of the link is more valuable than convenience of a given coder or reviewer. Sometimes there is no loss in straightening out code, but in other cases, it may be better to preserve the link to the reason the code exists if it models real-world knowledge that is conventionally expressed that way. Not every time. But sometimes someone else is going to maintain that code - do they know why it's written at all? It might help them to analyse it if it matches the literature about the domain - even if the literature would benefit from rectification too.

jdemontjoie
jdemontjoie

...these guys represent your company. I have an experienced work colleague who uses inappropriate or incorrect vocabulary, orally and when writing. I wince when I hear the wrong vocab used in meetings. Worse, the written work (formal documents which go to customers and to seniors internally) is dire. This is a situation which now needs to be managed and is an extra cost to the business. However, this needs to be offset by the value he brings elsewhere. When hiring, given two similar candidates, I'm certain that I and my colleagues will be choosing the one who will be most effective. That means grammar etc - shall we just call it communication? - is important.

gavin.burgess
gavin.burgess

If memory serves I posted about this yesterday. Could it be that negative posts are being edited out? Anyway, let's try again! Here's a piece of bad grammar copied from the text above: "I came across a piece in the Harvard Business Review written by Kyle Wiens that I like a lot." This says the author likes Kyle Wiens "a lot". Unfortunately, she refers to Kyle as "that" instead of "who", a nasty grammatical error. People are not "that". People are "who". Look it up. On the other hand, it could be that the author was referring to the piece in the Harvard Business Review written by Kyle Wiens as what she likes. Unfortunately the grammar is so poor that the actual meaning is obscured. if this is the case, then the sentence should read: "I came across a piece that I like a lot. in the Harvard Business Review, written by Kyle Wiens." It's not perfect, but at least it's clear.

fawoodward
fawoodward

"She don't know." "He don't care." Followed closely by using "could of" instead of "could have". Right or wrong, it reeks of an uneducated simpleton to me.

ConcernedCivilServant
ConcernedCivilServant

'I’m not a grammar Nazi, but I have to admit that I think less of a person’s ability if they don’t know the correct usage of “they’re,” “there,” and “their.”' I think less of a person's ability if he (or she) doesn't know not to use "they" with a singular subject; I would rather accept a generic "he" than the plural pronoun "they".

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

Its clear that Wiens is a stickler for grammar and I bet grammar is something he's good at. Well I am one who excels at math. Should I therefore place a higher priority on math skills regardless of whether such skill is important to the job Im seeking to fill? Should I toss out any perspective employee who is competent for the job but whom cannot perform basic math without the aid of any computing device; meaning can they add, subtract, multiply and divide without a calculator or other computing device and even without paper simply because I can? With the exception of when the skill is important to the job as grammar is to the production of written manuals, this attitude by Mr Wiens smacks of elitism and has no place in the real world.

apotheon
apotheon

He worked with concepts -- not implementation of real-world tools. He never really needed all that much attention to fine, mundane detail for his work. Even his dayjob when he was working on the theories of relativity didn't require any attention to detail. It was just the patent office, after all.

Slayer_
Slayer_

You can use GoToo as a function name. The person maintaining your code may come and kill you. But that's unrelated to grammar.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Do you think that will improve his grammar? There more than a few languages where there would be no way for a compiler to know that GoTo was required instead of GoToo. And besides, the example could have been any homophone. while, wile, wial, wyle ...

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

Really? How about math or people skills which are also important and are not guaranteed to be part of the skill set of one who understands there/their/they're ? Are these equally important or is grammar your pet peeve and so you focus on it to the exclusion of other skills? If you are part or whole owenr of the entity that will pay the person youa re employing that it is by all means your right to skew hriing towards persons that comply with your personal pet peeves. If however you're just anotehr employe then you are not doing your job when you put your personal preferences ahead of what is best for the company as a whole.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

and marveling at How ye have expressed oneself. :D

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Doing that is the same as getting programmers to test their own code. Stoopid, they'll end up doing none of it well, including programming. I too work with very good Technical Authors, I know I can't do their job as well as they can, they afford me a similar respect. Any manager who believes different, has no respect for our skills, and or no respect for the results of them...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The teachers try. But just like most other subjects, the teacher's effectiveness is measured more by their students' ability to choose from options on a test than by the student's ability to write effectively.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Left brain vs right brain, if we assume this still exists, would say that the well written programmer might have trouble understanding code logic.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Guy confused himself, never mind anyone else, it was a bug.. In terms of the domain I was only just starting myself, my colleagues had been deep in it for years. None of us understood how someone could write that. As soon as you find yourself writing If (!NotSet), you stop. If (IsNotSet) or better still if(Set) should be your first thought. There is no excuse for it. If you have a method or a member called NotSomething and you need !NotSomething, you write a Something equivalent and hide it. The job is hard enough as it is without writing stuff others and I bet your own eyes are going to stumble over when you come back to the code. The way I look at it is, there could be a valid reason why the code is incomprehensible, there are no acceptable excuses though. Not even mine... :( In all the time I've been doing the job I've never found a way of explaining a domain in code that was useful, and explaining code via a domain makes way too many assumptions for comfort. That you can't assume what I mean by event is a given, if not not not is not a given, it's incompetence. if (!(Not_BellyBanded != 'Y')) was the actual piece of code Belly Banding is an operation carried out on a certain category of products In the data structure it was a space for for not applicable, Y if it had been done if it was and N if it had not and it should have been. So that single flag did not even give enough information to drive the required logic. Now there might have been reasons why it ended up like that, improper initial analysis, or an unforeseen knock on effect from a specification change. Maybe a good time to use a comment. There was a comment, however it was about the Tally operation. So all the hall marks of a copy, paste and twiddle maneuver. Estimated cost of the mistake was 11,000 GBP, very expensive line of code that... Get the little things right, the big things become easier.

apotheon
apotheon

Notice how many software development job postings these days stress the importance of "communication skills". Among other things, I'm sure they mean by this that they want applicants who don't look like they're six years old judging by the content of their textual communications.

gechurch
gechurch

If you have to be deliberately daft to make your point, then it's probably not a very good point. Toni clarified the potential ambiguity in the sentence by using "that". This made it clear that she was refering to the piece, not the author (because as you rightly point out, when refering to people you use "who"). Ambiguity solved! Yet you conclude she is talking about Kyle, then go on about how she used incorrect grammar for someone talking about a person. She didn't use grammar to suggest she was talking about a person because she wasn't talking about a person! She used grammar to resolve the ambiguity. I'd hazard a guess that zero people, yourself included, actually misinterpreted the above sentence as stating that she likes Kyle a lot. If I was to write "I met my friend at a bar. It had a huge neon sign out the front". Would you also think that my friend had a neon sign rivited to his head? Your restructured sentence is worse. It makes it sound like Kyle wrote the whole Harvard Business Review.

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

"That" clearly refers to the piece, not Mr Wiens. One normally uses "who" to refer to a person, not "which" or "that". This isn't a grammar problem, as much as it is an issue with the general looseness of English sentence structure. For example, a sentence can have the same pronoun (such as "he" or "it") used twice, yet the reader knows -- from experience -- which noun it refers to.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

It's here: http://www.techrepublic.com/forum/discussions/102-402571-3753070 I replied to it. You may only be seeing part of the discussion thread. Have you selected to view 'All' posts? ==== Expanding on my response above, what you want to emphasize will determine how you construct the sentence. Is the article, the author, or the publication containing the article the most important thing to your message? The grammar purist would argue that, because 'that' is used in the sentence, not 'who', it must be obvious that the phrase "that I like a lot" is referring to the 'piece' and not to Kyle Wiens. My preferred method here is to eliminate any ambiguity and use the author's name as an adjective: "I came across a Kyle Wiens piece that I like a lot in the Harvard Business Review."

apotheon
apotheon

Those examples are of the wrong contraction (do not = don't, when it should be does not = doesn't), not of double negatives. A double negative would be "There ain't no way he could've known."

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

that neither of those are double negatives. Glass house, stones. Don't...

Slayer_
Slayer_

If you don't know the third persons gender, how do you know which pronoun to use?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Facility with mental arithmetic would cut the potential labour pool by about 90%. Worse still 19 * 17 in base 10 is not open to interpretation, so people could not even pretend that others are inferior. That's without the ensuing catastrophe from a HR type not being able to find their calculator.

lovcom
lovcom

Einstein could not achieve what he did unless he had a massive attention to detail. Also, his time at the patent office was but a small percentage of his life. Lastly, there is nothing more "real-world" then Physics. It seems you know nothing of him ;-).

jsargent
jsargent

Actually he did pay attention to detail and not just with concepts. He just didn't need to pay attention to grammar to get ahead in theoretical physics. Any skill has nothing to do with IQ. IQ just shows how flexible your brain is to various situations. Although the measure of IQ is vastly oriented to concepts that are completely unrelated to real world situations but then again that's a different discussion. Personally I still believe that someone who could not be bothered to pay attention to grammar is unlikely to pay attention to rules in his profession will help him avoid problems. I basically think it shows sloppy behavior.

apotheon
apotheon

First, the brain is not actually divided up that neatly. Second, the logical/rational talents are of significant value in writing software documentation. As someone who documents his own code half to death with attention to fine detail, I don't enter some kind of artistic fugue state dependent on magical intuitive powers to write the documentation for my code and my software (not exactly the same thing). It's technical work, which is why it's called technical writing.

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

...but (it seems to me) that both writing code and writing technical documentation require the same sort of linear, well-structured thinking.

apotheon
apotheon

The fact you made a different assumption about the intended meaning of the sentence does not necessarily mean the other person is being deliberately daft -- or, in fact, daft at all. It may just be that the sentence structure is ambiguous and, given the way people abuse the word "that" even when referring to people, one person might interpret the sentence one way while another person might interpret it another way. No daftness, deliberate or otherwise, is necessary.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The result can be the same, the solution though is very different. Describing it as sloppy is a cop-out, it ignores the fact that most developers never have the luxury of concentrating exclusively on one thing. People who can concentrate on one thing at a time aren't a cause for admiration, jealousy would be nearer...

jsargent
jsargent

My wife is good at spelling but she can't code....Then again she is a PR manager. I admire people who pay attention to detail. Anyone who writes software that works 24/7 and has to have a huge MTBF needs to be careful. In my experience, being sloppy somewhere else normally indicates that the person doesn't pay attention to those "boring" details that make all the difference.

lovcom
lovcom

I don't think it wise to be so entrenched (or intrenched) in such dogma, to think that people that have less then great spelling skills are not to be trusted. I know MANY excellent spellers that could not code their way out of a paperbag. Conversely, I know several A-Team developers that could do better at spelling. The best metric IMHO is the coding. If you want to hire them to code, then judge them by their coding, and not get turned off because they wrote intrenched instead of entrenched. If Steve Jobs had your dogma, Apple would not be what it is today.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Code is supposed to self document, that's the excuse I mostly hear.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Not as often admittedly and not with the same level of enthusiasm. :p Trying to think about how you think tends to confuse. I'm positive it's not in a programming language though, never mind a natural one.

apotheon
apotheon

If you focused the same attention on developing your documentation skills as on your coding skills, I'm sure you'd be able to achieve the same level of capability. The fact you put all your time into honing your coding skills instead of your documentation skills is surely the real reason you see them as different types of structured thinking. In both cases, what it really boils down to is thinking about programming languages, natural languages, and constructing working systems out of each, in a systematic manner.

apotheon
apotheon

> You'd think but it isn't Incorrect. It is, in fact, very similar.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I certainly don't program in english, I don't program by english grammatical rules. I don't even really program in the language I'm using, which is one of the reasons why I can switch programming languages far easier than others. We call programming languages, languages but I'm not sure they are, would you call math a language, or expect a mathematician to express them selves well in natural language. I'm not sure you can, I'm even less sure you should. Ambiguity should play no part in either discipline, yet it's the essence of natural language. The greater precision you attempt by adding more words, the less readable it becomes. On one end you have Homer, or Delaney, or Solzenitsyn and on the other small print written by lawyers.

Slayer_
Slayer_

That's how come people can write code in a language that is not their first language. That's why it bothers me when people say if you can't speak and write English, you can't code. Because it's not true. I work with Russian and Chinese code all the time. It is just as bad as mine :p

gechurch
gechurch

You must have a very different definition of 'daft' than I do. Toni could have been talking about a thing or a person, then she wrote the word 'who'. If you can't derive from that that Toni was referring to the person, not the thing, then you are daft.

apotheon
apotheon

It's a lot easier to count on one's fingers in binary than in decimal, once one gets used to it, considering it's trivially easy to get to 1023 without losing count.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

1 x 59 is 59 2 x 59 is158 3 x 59 is 237 ... wonder how many times they forgot how many fingers they'd counted through..