God bless Kyle Wiens, the CEO who recently posted I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. on Harvard Business Review’s Blog Network. Weins gives a mandatory grammar test to every person applying for a job at his two companies (iFixit, an online repair manual, and Dozuki, which helps companies write technical documentation). If they struggle with “to” versus “too” or mix up their itses, they are out, even if they are otherwise qualified for the position. While conceding that his employees do, in the main, write for a living, Weins argues that grammar is relevant for all companies.
On the face of it, my zero tolerance approach….might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right?
Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s”, then that’s not a learning curve I am comfortable with. … Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I have found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing.
Well two big amens to that. First, to the idea that in addition to their specialist expertise, most professionals are also professional writers. (Almost every lawyer I ask reports spending between 50% and 90% of their time writing.) Second, to the idea that good grammar equals credibility.
Good grammar shows respect for your clients
For lawyers, accountants, and management consultants alike, detail is everything. And the most common and visible manifestation of your attention to detail is your everyday writing for clients: letters, emails, memos, PowerPoint slides, text messages. So insisting on writing that is free from errors in grammar, usage, punctuation and spelling is not old-fashioned, elitist, or style-over-substance stickling. To the contrary. Polished, error-free prose shows that you care about getting everything right – the details in the document, the details of your professional advice, and every other detail of your client’s brief.
The polish as a final touch
In my writing workshops, we pay close attention to the value of planning, writing and editing documents. We also spend time talking about the importance of the final polish – the opportunity to catch any remaining lumps and bumps, grammatical or otherwise – and practical ways to get it done even when pressed for time. Here are a few quick tips:
1. Know your weak spots. We all have them. I stumble over license/license and practice/practise every time, and often need to talk myself through a that-or-which construction. The seriously keen or apostrophe-challenged can sign up for a grammar refresher – most university continuing education programs offer them in person and online. But short of that, just be aware of your common mistakes, and be ready to edit for them.
2. Rely on people checkers. Your system’s spelling and grammar checker is no replacement for a thinking person’s set of eyes on your document – yours, your colleague’s, your assistant’s. Ask for help, and return the favour. If your eyes aren’t fresh for the document, edit using a hard copy and/or read the text aloud. You’ll be more likely to see (and hear) errors.
3. Get reliable tools at your elbow. Your workplace may have its own style guide and/or a preferred published style guide. If not, get access to at least one that you like. Based in Canada, I use theChicago Manual of Style (16th edition), which has a great subscription-only online version, and The Canadian Style. And while not a reference, I never miss a chance to encourage everyone to (re)discover Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s a classic little volume guaranteed to set every professional writer’s heart aflame – short, reassuring, and a pleasure to read.