Reports on the BBC News On-Line last week suggest another “return to old fashioned values”, the Government’s stock response when all else fails. This time it is in relation to teaching English grammar at primary school, the first time in a while that such focus has been placed on this foundation of the language at that level.
Top marks, in my view. I cannot be alone among employers in grinding what’s left of my teeth through the stilted prose of hundreds of job applications, each doing its own small violence to the English language – “like” instead of “as if”, nouns wavering about uncertainly between singular and plural, “people that …” instead of “people who …”, adjectives as adverbs, etc.
I hear all those cries that it does not matter so long as you can understand what it means and that language has always evolved and always will. No doubt Shakespeare took many liberties with the English of the early 1600’s, and so on. Of course there is something in all those sentiments. However, I am looking at a job application from someone who wishes to be a lawyer with this firm – someone who wants to impress me with his attention to detail, his ability to express himself clearly and his intelligence – and for the most part I am coming away unimpressed. Am I wrong to think that this matters? After all, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. advised people to avoid semi-colons altogether on the basis that “all they do is show you’ve been to college”. Even if that were right, am I not entitled to want the firm’s clients to know that they are paying for that sort of quality? For solicitors, as for many other professionals, good English should be as much a part of the uniform as the doctor’s white coat – not absolutely essential in a tight corner, but very reassuring the rest of the time.
So at the recruitment stage, can you use the grammar of the application as a filter? Or do you just risk claims of age, race or disability discrimination instead? It depends on the job. Of course you should not let hiccups in grammar blind you to the merits of the rest of the application, especially where writing plays only a very small part in the role. London Underground came unstuck in an indirect race discrimination claim many years ago by requiring job applicants to possess standards of English quite irrelevant to the requirements of a Tube driver, thereby statistically prejudicing those with some other native language. Age is probably not an issue – a tendency to slovenly writing is in no sense the preserve of the young, however it may seem.
Absent that, however, scattering commas and apostrophes over your application as if by blunderbuss and including grammatical errors which would be perfectly obvious if the writer had just taken the time to read the form to himself even once, can certainly be a deal-breaker. Remember that recruiters make judgments about candidates all the time for more or less superficial reasons, and basing such assessments on the use of language is at least a rationale more objective and more easily demonstrated than most. But one small tip – if you do reject an application on that basis, do make sure that there are no errors at all in the letter telling the candidate of that decision! Especially if the candidate is from a minority, any such carelessness on your part is a clear message to the Tribunal that you are not as bothered by these things as you have claimed, and therefore that the real reason for the rejection is potentially something more sinister and less lawful.
Henry Fowler, author of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926 (yes, I know, but it was at the time) wrote that those who neither knew nor cared what a split infinitive was “are the vast majority, and are a happy folk”, to be envied by the rest of us. Apply that to grammatical niceties generally and that’s okay only if you are content with “Ignorance is bliss” as your company’s vision statement. If you would prefer something a little more aspirational for your clients and workforce, however, then fear not – it seems that your hour is nigh.