Want a job? Learn English!

29 May

These thoughts are aimed at those leaving school, university or are in unemployed limbo. All your qualifications – or lack of them – might count for nought if the way you communicate, particularly the written word, is poor. For more than twenty years I have pored over job applications and merrily tossed those with heinous errors into the bin. When I think about it, most errors are heinous. Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar can damn your application out of hand. Not tailoring your letter or CV to the particular employer and demands of the post will be dealt with similarly.

When you get ‘feedback’ on your failure to secure the job, employers will be vague. They want you off their backs and will, usually, trot out the sort of language which tells you nothing: very competitive field; choosing from a vast number of applicants and so forth. They will fight shy of saying, “Your spelling is shit, your grammar is worse.” They won’t complain that, ” You don’t know your apostrophe from your colon. Your ten GCSEs don’t own anything, nor have any letters been omitted.” Employers fear the race, gender, age, disability and special needs ‘hawks’ so they may well not tell the truth.

Even as I am writing I have had to resist the tendency to use numerals for numbers, even though this is acceptable for numbers over single digits. I have consciously avoided ending a sentence with a preposition, been sparing with metaphorical language, idioms and slang. And yet (note the conjunction) it is almost impossible. Check heinous, tailoring, damning out of hand, off their backs…and so forth. What I can claim is clarity. The written word must be precise, not sloppy; appropriate, not approximate. With the spoken word there is much fun to be had with inventive, metaphorical language – so long as those listening can unlock the code.

The teaching profession has managed the extraordinary number and variety of changes thrust upon it these last thirty years with skill, ingenuity and forbearance. Many of society’s problems are blamed on the formal education process rather (as they should be) on upbringing. One exception may be the teaching of English. I need not revisit the child-centred, ‘discovery’ debate; save to say that what we learn intuitively often needs a more formal explanation for us to make sense of it. This is true of language. I may  have been more lucky than I felt at the time  to have learned Latin to O Level and suffered the torture of clause analysis and regular grammar, punctuation and spelling tests. I was taught French in a pretty formal way too. Some of this education was akin to visiting the dentist – to be endured as a necessary evil but at least my teeth wouldn’t fall out the next year. If teachers in primary and secondary schools do not know the rules themselves, they will teach approximately not accurately. Most teachers of English couldn’t tell a gerund from a gerbil or a split infinitive from a split end. As for apostrophes – don’t get me started.

It may take more than a generation to correct the appalling ignorance of language which pervades the nation. By then it will be too late. America has overtaken us as the questionable guardians of English, which means the protectors of all that is American. They lead, we follow. Their IT and TV programmes determine our language.

What can the young job-hunter do about all this? One thing -get your letters of application and CVs right. Get them checked and, as you ease into your mid twenties and beyond, read occasionally about your language as well as in your language. Along with my favourites Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan, William Boyd and the rest I have, most recently found unusual pleasure dipping into Lynne Truss’ celebrated Eats, Shoots and Leaves and John Humphreys’ Lost for Words. Both books have been on the shelves a while but they are informative and fun. Anyone can enjoy and learn. My English master at secondary school, the legendary Ken Cripps, would open the lesson with, “It’s clause analysis today gentlemen. It will be very dull but it’s vital. I’ll crack a couple of jokes to keep you awake but if you fail the test you will have to come back at lunchtime.”

Almost anyone recognises elegant, accurate language and we invest qualities in its author beyond mere admiration of good written and oral communication. When we apply for jobs our language sells us. When we open our mouths, take up a pen or tap a keypad we reveal just who we are and how good we are.

3 Responses to “Want a job? Learn English!”

  1. me May 29, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    “You’re spelling is shit”????

    • Mrs C August 17, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

      Check your own comment for typographical (or is it grammatical?) errors before criticising others’ choice of words (especially when they are quoting)!

  2. Brigitte Santer May 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    I agree that Truss and Humphreys make excellent fare, and both reside on my bookshelves. However, to add a certain frisson to one’s reading, may I suggest ‘txtng – the gr8 db8’ (David Crystal), and ‘the life of slang’ (Julie Coleman). May I be struck down….!

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