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Grammar lessons all job seekers should know

Kaitlin Madden, CareerBuilder Writer

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When applying for a job, there are few faster ways to get your résumé and cover letter thrown out of contention than by making a glaring grammatical error.

These days, human resources departments and hiring managers are flooded with résumés. They have to be narrowed down somehow, and grammatical errors are an easy way to eliminate applicants.

"In an era of spell check, easily edited documents and instantly shared 'can you give this a look' emails, typos and grammatical errors on résumés and/or cover letters are pretty much unforgivable," says Sean Smith, president of Third Street, an Indianapolis-based marketing company. "The message sent by typing 'too' when it should be 'to' can literally be the difference between getting the nod or getting a no."

Here is a proofreading checklist for your résumé and cover letter.

1. Know your homophones
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings, like too, to and two. Using the correct version on your résumé is crucial.

"The misuse of your/you're, there/their/they're, and to/too/two occurs more times than I care to dwell on," says Marisa Brayman, a Web developer and blogger for Stadri Emblems, a company that designs embroidered patches. "If someone uses one of these incorrectly on a cover letter, he can say goodbye to his chances of ever landing a decent job. If this is due to a simple typo, that is one thing; however, in my humble opinion, if the individual doesn't know the difference between these basic words and has never bothered to take an hour out of his or her life to learn it, he or she is not deserving of landing a decent job."

A quick refresher:

Their, they're, there

Their: The possessive form of "they." ("Applicants submitted their error-free cover letters.")

They're: The contraction of "they are." ("I think they're getting the hang of this grammar thing.")

There: A location. ("The pile of cover letters is over there.")

Two, too, to

Two: A number. ("There are two applicants in the lobby.")

Too: Also. ("I'd like to be interviewed for the job, too.")

To: A preposition or infinitive. ("I'm going to apply.")

Your, you're

Your: The possessive form of "you." ("Don't forget to proofread your résumé.)

You're: The contraction of "you are." ("I have a feeling you're going to get this job.")

It's, its

The best-selling grammar bible, "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" by Lynne Truss, best describes the difference between these two words:

"To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as 'Thank God its Friday' (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive 'its' (no apostrophe) with the contractive 'it's' (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian 'kill' response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word 'it's' (with apostrophe) stands for 'it is' or 'it has.' If the word does not stand for 'it is' or 'it has' then what you require is 'its.' This is extremely easy to grasp."

Some other common homophones you should know:

Whose and who's

Every day and everyday

2. Use apostrophes properly
Apostrophes are used for a few reasons:


  • They indicate the possessive: "In my last job, I managed the CEO's calendar."

  • They indicate the omission of letters in words (i.e., in contractions).

  • They indicate the exclusion of numbers in dates: "I graduated college in '05."

  • They indicate time or quantity: "I must give my current employers two weeks' notice."


Be sure to check your résumé for proper use of apostrophes, as well as for any erroneous punctuation. Apostrophes do not, for example, indicate the plural form of a singular noun. It is incorrect to say "I developed orientation programs to help new employee's get acclimated to the company."

3. Keep tenses consistent
"Building lists correctly is important," says Christina Zila, director of communications at Textbroker.com, a Las Vegas-based content-creation firm. "Use consistent verb tenses: If you start your job duties with 'managing multiple employees,' don't have your next point as 'prepared annual reports' but 'preparing annual reports.'"

Similarly, as a general rule, all activities or accomplishments that you completed in the past should be in the past tense. Activities that you perform now should be in the present tense. This should be kept consistent throughout your résumé.

4. Proofread and then proofread again
The bottom line is that proofreading your application materials before submitting them is a must.

"There are enough people with bad grammar pet peeves that there is virtually no position out there where grammar doesn't matter," says Debra Yergen, author of the "Creating Job Security Resource Guide." "Since a basic search-engine inquiry for 'grammar pet peeves' nets more than 400,000 returns, it's safe to say that hiring managers are paying close attention to grammar and other résumé and cover-letter errors. Read and reread everything you write for a job application, and if you doubt yourself even slightly, run your submission past someone you trust."

Kaitlin Madden is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.



Last Updated: 01/02/2012 - 11:23 AM


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