Tune Up Your Grammar

Syntax errors, poor spelling and bad punctuation all send the wrong message.

By Leslie Stevens-Huffman | August 2008


Is your resume grammatically correct? For many job seekers, writing a flawless resume is difficult enough, yet nothing is more important. If it contains grammatical errors, reviewers may surmise you’re uneducated, lack good communication skills or don’t pay enough attention to detail.

Creating a grammatically correct resume requires knowledge of basic grammar, proofreading skills and familiarity with the nuances of resume composition. Not everything you learned in English 101 applies to resumes.

"The first mistake people make is writing their resume about what they want to share, when they should really be writing it for the benefit of the employer – and that includes using correct grammar," says Amanda Collins, a resume designer, proofreader and copy editor based in Phoenix, Ariz. (She goes by the handle "the Grammar Doctor"). "You don’t want the employer to notice your resume’s grammatical errors and reject it."

Here’s a list of tips that will help you avoid the most common grammatical errors, and guide you through the gray areas of resume composition.

Pronouns

When writing an objective statement or a summary of your background, don’t describe your goals or experience using "I."

"The first person is implied when you write a resume or cover letter, so it’s not necessary to start a sentence with I," says Collins. "In fact, I’d avoid the use of pronouns all together."

Collins suggests including an occasional "my" is okay, but avoid using "we" or "our" in your accomplishment statements, since resumes should highlight your individual achievements. If the results were accomplished by a team, simply note it where appropriate.

Tense

When you describe previous experience and create your accomplishment statements, use past tense action verbs such as developed, led, created, engineered, analyzed and implemented. Use present tense action verbs to describe your current responsibilities. Blend past and present tense action verbs to discuss a particular task or accomplishment that occurred in the past, but was a part of your current position.

Capitalization

Capitalization is tricky. The key is to be consistent throughout the document and resist the temptation to start improper nouns with capital letters. Capitalize your previous job titles and division names such as  Senior Software Developer, Engineering Division, because they are proper nouns. If you worked for a division of ABC Company, don’t capitalize division, and never capitalize division or department when you use them as adjectives. Don’t capitalize the names of courses you’ve taken, only capitalize any proper nouns. Spell the names of companies the same way they’re spelled on the company’s Web site.

"Capitals inhibit the flow of the eye," says Marcy Thorner, an editor and grammar expert based in New Market, Md., who markets her services as "the Grammar Guru." She adds: "I use capitals sparingly." Also, she says, resume writers shouldn’t capitalize every word in a title or resume heading, only those with five or more letters, unless they’re proper nouns.

Punctuation

Resumes often contain complete sentences and some phrases. Most resume experts recommend using periods at the conclusion of both. Again, the best practice is consistency: Either don’t use periods, or insert periods at the conclusion of every statement. Of course, you should always conclude abbreviations with a period.

Here’s another tip: Use a formal writing style that features fewer abbreviations and contractions. That way, you’re less likely to get tripped up by a misplaced period or apostrophe, which is required for contractions or possessive nouns. Says Collins: "Resumes and cover letters are formal documents, so I say avoid all contractions."

Separate items in a series by using commas, and note that most professional resume writers favor inserting a comma after the third item in a sequence, even when it’s followed by and. According to Thorner, resume writers shouldn’t use quotation marks to delineate jargon or a word used out of context. Instead, quotation marks should apply only to direct quotes.

Misused Words

Be on the lookout for these words, which are often misused in resumes:

  • Through and while: Through implies physical passage, while means during.
  • Since and because: Since implies time, because is the reason something happened.
  • Who and that: use who following a person, that following an object, such as a company name.
  • Which and that: which is generally preceded by a comma and is used with non-restrictive clauses. That is used with restrictive clauses.  (How do you recognize a restrictive clause: If you take the clause out, the sentence won’t have the same meaning).

Remember that spell check and grammar check aren’t magic bullets for poor composition skills. Software doesn’t recognize every error, such as misusing there for their, yet it may highlight conjoined company names like PayScale as spelling errors. Always ask a qualified proofreader to review your resume.

Also, remember consistency is the key. If you ask ten resume experts what makes a great resume, you’ll get ten different opinions. While they may disagree about style, they’ll be united in their belief that glaring grammatical errors will derail even the most qualified candidate.

Leslie Stevens-Huffman is a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif. who has more than 20 years experience in the staffing industry.

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