Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit and founder of Dozuki, gives a grammar test to every job applicant. “Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English,” he writes. “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.”
Predictably, Wiens took a lot of heat. Commenters called him arrogant, fixated, rigid, and foolish for giving so much weight to just one qualification. However, the research bears him out.
Since 1981, several studies have found that people who make certain errors in grammar and usage are judged to be uneducated and unintelligent. Of course, that judgment can be wrong. Someone who says “Me and Mike calibrated the nuclear density gauge” might have outstanding technical skills. Nevertheless, serious grammar errors can make even a highly skilled professional seem less credible.
Which mistakes matter most?
Maxine Hairston wondered whether mistakes that outraged teachers also mattered to business people and professionals. She surveyed reactions to various errors and categorized the errors according to how much they bothered people.
Some mistakes did not seem to matter to those who took the survey. In other words, an employer who noticed an error like “the most unique” or “the data is” would probably overlook the lapse. Some errors, however, were considered serious enough to be made only by those who were ignorant or unintelligent. Errors like I don’t need none or he brung it were judged so negatively that Hairston called them status-marking errors.
Hairston’s study was done in 1979. Are her results still valid? While a few errors are not considered quite as serious today, several studies have confirmed that some errors are considered more serious than others and that those who make the most serious errors are perceived as unprofessional. You’ll find those studies in the Notes below.
Would you like to know if your grammar meets professional standards? Take a self-scoring grammar quiz: www.writebetteratwork.com/grammar-diagnostic/
Kyle Wien’s “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why” is a July 20, 2012, post on HBR Blog Network: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html
Hairston’s categories of error are described in “What Business People Think About Grammar and Usage”: http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/troufs/comp3160/Hairston.Business_People.html She published the results of her study in a 1981 article “Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage” in College English, 43(8), 794-806: http://www.jstor.org/stable/376679
Kantz and Yeats (1994) found that “a hierarchy of error does exist.” Their conference presentation, “Whose Judgments? A Survey of Faculty Responses to Common and Highly Irritating Writing Errors,” is available at http://www.ateg.org/conferences/c5/kantz.htm
In 1999, Dr. Johanna Rubba’s linguistics students replicated Hairston’s study and found that respondents still reacted strongly to nonstandard usage. Their results are discussed in “Usage Matters: A Comparative Study of Judgments of English Usage Errors”: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~jrubba/390/survey/Usage.matters.html
Beason’s 2001 study found that “the extent to which errors harm the writer’s image is more serious and far-reaching than many students and teachers might realize.” See “Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors,” published in College Composition and Communication, 53(1), pp. 33–60, available at http://faculty.winthrop.edu/kosterj/writ465/samples/beason.pdf
Gilsdorf and Leonard (2001) found that executives were most bothered by errors in sentence structure, such as run-ons and dangling modifiers. “Big Stuff, Little Stuff: A Decennial Measurement of Executives’ and Academics’ Reactions to Questionable Usage Elements” appeared in the Journal of Business Communication, 38(4), 439-475.
A nationwide survey sponsored by the Business Roundtable in 2004, Writing: A Ticket to Work … or a Ticket Out, found that 80% of employers consider writing skills when making promotion decisions: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/2154