Punctuation: Why Resumes Must Have a Zero Tolerance Error Rate


By Stephanie Clark.

When I searched the phrase “what recruiters say about grammar” I read headlines that provoked anxiety. That’s not what our job hunters, usually at a low level of confidence anyways, need to read.

According to articles from respectable sources such as time.com, careerealism.com, and themuse.com, if the resume is flawed by even one grammatical or spelling error, it can provoke a recruiter’s hatred, get itself thrown disrespectfully in the trash, and may even cost the job hunter the worst loss – no job offer.

I have to admit to some disbelief here as the question that immediately pops into mind is this: since when are recruiters grammar experts? It seems that hypocrisy is at play. I often find grammatical and spelling errors in job postings; perhaps it’s time that job hunters refuse to apply to jobs where the postings demonstrate anything less than grammatical perfection?

The topic of grammar is enormous, and although writing style is more of a talent rather than a learned skill, punctuation is entirely learnable.

Consider this definition: Grammar is the set of language rules that you use, most of the time unconsciously, to create phrases and sentences that convey meaning.

Grammar governs whether what you want to communicate is clearly expressed or lost in a jumble of words. If your phrases jar rather than flow, if your sentences run on and on (recruiters are busy we are told, with little time for more than tweet-sized messages), or if your knowledge of rules is so sloppy that your writing confuses the reader, your message will be lost, buried, or nonsensical.

A few simple and rather amusing examples illustrate this point.

Let’s get together to network and eat Mr. Jones.
Let’s get together to network and eat, Mr. Jones.

In the first sentence the meaning is to have Mr. Jones as the main course; the second asks Mr. Jones to a networking meeting.

Worked at a “clean” Western restaurant.

Adding the quotes to the word in question puts its meaning in question. If I were to write that I am “smart,” I’m actually saying that I’m not.

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Two opposing points of view are expressed in this example. As for which is correct, there’s no way to know without more context. In the second version, the colon points our attention to the next phrase, which improves our understanding of the first part of the sentence.

Oh! Boy Syrup
Oh boy! Syrup

The second version is the correct one as it begins with a statement of joy, which is explained by the word that follows.

Incorrectly used apostrophes, quotations, commas, and exclamation marks can alter the meaning of a sentence or phrase. In each example above, the meaning is significantly altered, instilling images of cannibalism, a dirty eating establishment, disrespectful gender definitions, and … well, let’s skip the last example, shall we?

What can we do to avoid similar mishaps in our clients’ resumes? Here are a few ideas and resources to ensure that your work keeps each client’s message clear, appropriate, and out of the trash can.

  1. Do study reliable, credible sources. (Please do not take offence as I want only that your work sparkles with grammatical perfection, but I suggest that your mother, neighbour, or your teen that has spent years learning creative spelling and little grammar, may not be credible sources.) 10 Best Grammar Resources will get you started. I also like Grammar Girl. Her website’s name sparks immediate interest: you’ll find her at Quick and Dirty Tips.com. And if you prefer a printed resource, a Canadian book of style is best for Canadian clients as grammar norms vary between the U.S., U.K., and Canada, with each holding fast to its own set of rules.
  2. Engage a professional editor or proof reader for a period of time. You’ll be amazed at how seemingly tiny tweaks transform a resume into a blemish-free example of professional writing. And you’ll be astonished at how many mistakes, and recurring mistakes, you do make. But you will learn from them and with time won’t require an editor.
  3. At the very least, read it aloud or go through it backwards, both excellent proofreading techniques. While reading aloud, you’ll find commas in places where your voice wants to continue without stopping, which you’ll remove. Should you find a period when you instinctively want to continue reading, consider whether your sentence was complete. And if you read a sentence and it makes no sense at all, start over or seek help. “Reading” a document backwards points out typos and spelling issues.
  4. If you have no interest in becoming a grammar expert or even of taking a few courses, stick to basic punctuation. Steer clear of semi-colons and colons as these are potentially tricky and confusing. Please note that exclamation marks have no place in the cover letter (and certainly not in the resume), unless the job posting embraces this more casual communication style. In that case, use just one as an exercise of throwing your professional writer’s caution to the wind!

These steps will help your clients’ resumes earn recruiters’ respect (and keep them out of the trash).

If you are ready to embrace Canadian punctuation rules, join me at CPC’s Telenetworking Class: Grammar Refresher. Let’s instruct and inspire each other in the creation of punctuation-perfect job search communications. All our telenetworking recordings can be found in on our Members Only site: log in and listen to all of CPC’s Telenetworking Sessions.

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Good article! Employers aren’t impressed with errors on resumes, especially for positions that require accuracy! My only concern is the following example you used. “A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.” No matter how you say it!!!!

Thanks, Joanne

Hi Joanne,

Thank you for your comment. In the first example, the woman is nothing without her man, and in the second example, it’s the man who is nothing without a woman. It’s amazing that punctuation can flip the meaning of a string of words right around to the opposite!

I love the book “Eats shoots and leaves” by Lynne Truss for in-depth exploration of commas and apostrophes. And it’s hilarious as well, as the title hints at! You can often pick it up at a second hand store.

Thanks again for commenting and I hope to see you at the teleclass!

This is a great article, I spend my days reviewing student resumes as a Career Advisor, and small silly mistakes are the ones that drive me crazy and bring up my “hatred” as pointed out. Some mistakes that I see numerous times are misspelling your own email address. I have seen these variations @htomail @hotmial @mgail … most recruiters prefer a hyperlinked email address or just copy past the address you provide, therefore if there is a mistake in your email address they wont be able to contact you and you can miss out on a job.
Consistency is also a big one to take into consideration. If you will use an abbreviation, stay consistent. I have seen some resumes with September written in various formats across the resume; Sept or September or 09 or Sep.

Your resume if the first work sample the reciter will be viewing if there are mistakes or simply no care put into the application (As in not changing a company name or position title) this can cost you the job.

Thank you Jan, for adding the very useful perspective of a recruiter! It’s good to know how important proofreading can be. I, myself, have caught my own gmali mis-spellings! It’s so easy to do and so easy to fix yet so critical to the outcome.

The irony of your reply will be missed by most.

Glad you caught it, Andrea! 🙂