Language and grammar tips for resumes, interviews and new jobs

Grammar and Language Infographic

Infographic by Patricia Bouweraerts

By Patricia Bouweraerts —

“Looking put together” is a common phrase, but “sounding put together” is an uncommon one.

It’s sometimes scary to apply for or start a new job, and a person might buy a new, coordinating outfit, or ask friends how they look before heading off to the big interview.

But while in the comfortable swiveling chair of a good hair stylist, it might ease some job-search stress to get refreshed on language experts’ advice for grammar and word use in order to sound polished, as well as look polished.

Common resume writing errors include not being consistent

Mignon Fogarty Image

Mignon Fogarty, professor, Reynolds Chair in Media Entrepreneurship at the University of Nevada, Reno. Photo by David Calvert

One of the most common writing mistakes people make on their resume is a lack of consistency in language use and punctuation, said Mignon Fogarty, professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of the New York Times bestseller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”

“It’s important to use parallel structure and bullet points,” she said. “If one bullet point starts with a verb, they all should start with a verb. If one starts with a participle — such as ‘organizing’ or ‘coordinating’ — they all should start with a participle. People expect this kind of parallelism, and if they don’t see it, it will throw them off, even if they don’t know why.”

Consistency is also a good practice when deciding whether bullet points are all fragments or complete sentences. For short bullets, no period is needed.

“If each bullet is a complete sentence, a period may be used at the end of each one, but they should all be the same,” Fogarty said.

Is it all right to use the pronoun “I” in a resume?

“I think it is — you’re talking about you accomplishments,” she said. “But if you decide to minimize it in the resume, you can still use it in the cover letter. It’s a clear way of writing.”

When interviewing for a job, use the most commonly accepted grammar

Being conservative with language use in the resume is also a good bet for a job interview, and Fogarty said that it can’t hurt to go the most accepted route even if other grammatical uses are acceptable, such as saying you’re “good” if someone asks you how you are.

“It’s safest to say ‘I’m well,’ because even though it isn’t wrong to say, ‘I’m good,’ a lot of people think it’s an error,” she said.

Also, should an interviewee listen to the language style of a hiring manager to get a better idea of the management approach at a new company?

For instance, are there any words that may be more frequently used by management in companies that are structured, stringent, or have type X management styles with tighter control on employees?

James Pennebaker said it’s in the pronouns.

He is professor of social psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of 13 books including, “The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us.” Pennebaker said that in more rigid management cultures, there may be certain pronouns spoken more often by a hiring manager, but it is difficult to analyze this closely.

The difficulty arises because people are much more tuned in to content words — words like “school” and “live” — words that create a visual image or concept. They are less focused on function words such as pronouns “I” and “we,” and other function words such as “the,” “that” or “though.” Function words are simply the glue that hold sentences together, but are surprisingly telling.

“Probably (stricter managers use) more words like ‘we’ and ‘you’ and fewer words such as ‘I’,” he said. “Note that it is almost impossible to hear these words even if you are an expert. Instead of listening for pronouns in the interview, I’d urge the candidate to listen to what the interviewers are saying.”

Pennebaker has used computerized text analysis to investigate the language style of political figures and leaders, and he has also conducted studies of language style matching in relationships — even speed-dating. In a 2012 NPR story by Alix Spiegel, she reports that Pennebaker found when two people chose each other for a date, they used pronouns, articles and prepositions more similarly. He discovered by counting and sorting words, people’s language shifts when they are around someone they find interesting.

“When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way,” he said in the NPR article. “And it’s one of these things that humans do automatically.”

Does “language matching” also happen during job interviews to create that sense of “fit” between company culture and employee?

“The answer to your question about language style matching is probably yes,” Pennebaker said. “Any time two people are on the same page, they are more likely talking similarly.”

It’s safest to say ‘I’m well’ because even though it isn’t wrong to say ‘I’m good,’ a lot of people think it’s an error.

Mignon Fogarty

How should one use language in emails, or in a new workplace?

Getting back to grammar, when people begin a new job, they typically want to make a good impression and may be more self-conscious about using the correct words.

“On the first week of a new job, take your cues from coworkers because most cultures have their norms and expectations when it comes to language, Fogarty said. “You may find that your new workplace uses and expects jargon even though it may not be appropriate in other situations.”

Language used in emails has been trending to a more direct and less formal style in many companies. While some still continue to use a salutation such as “dear” and a closing “sincerely,” others prefer a faster pace of skipping the salutation and replacing it with “hi.”

“This also depends on the culture,” she said. “I see a lot more people writing ‘hi’ or ‘hey’ or no salutations lately, but it does depend on the specific workplace — again, take your cue from your co-workers.”

She said that it can create a sense of tension if someone writes a longer email with salutation and closing, in contrast to when their colleague uses a brief, rapid-fire style.

How about the word “like” being used to indicate a similarity between two items?

“The most traditional grammar rules say you should use ‘such as’ when the item is something that falls under a category or when listing examples,” Fogarty said. “Most people do use ‘like’ and can find ‘such as’ sounding stilted.”

How should you word criticism – direct or indirect language?

Pennebaker said that when giving a verbal criticism to someone at work, use more indirect language.

“My recommendation would be to use the conventions of politeness,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘You are making some bad decisions about X,’ try something like, ‘I can see some possible advantages to your ideas about X, but I wonder if it might be helpful to try Y.’ In other words, a direct criticism automatically puts people on the defensive. Using slightly more indirect (and more polite) language can help the other person to listen to what you are thinking.”

Fogarty agrees.

“Use a passive voice when wording criticism or place the emphasis on the project, not the person,” she said. “Instead of saying ‘you messed up on that poster,’ say ‘the poster didn’t come out as hoped.’ That way, you’re not directly addressing the person, but you’re still expressing what you’d like to have happen. Instead of criticizing the individual, you’re addressing the project and how everyone can do better.”

She added that you can also offer assistance as an alternative to criticism.

“You could say, ‘Press releases seem to be challenging for you. Here are some articles that may help,” she said.

Telling a person they are not a good writer might have the effect of them dreading the task or not wanting to write any media releases at all.

“You need to highlight the path to success,” Fogarty said. “On my website, people will ask a question, and it will have unrelated grammar errors in the body of the question. People will often ask me why I don’t address it, but I say, ‘they didn’t ask me to critique their question.’ I respond to what they’re asking me.”

So, only addressing what someone directly asks you — whether you are an expert or a new employee — may be a proven path to sounding your best.

And it creates quite a bit of confidence to both look and sound put together.

Any time two people are on the same page, they are more likely talking similarly.

James Pennebaker

Additional resources for grammar and language use:

More on parallel structure in resumes.
More on “I’m good” versus “I’m well.”
More on “like” versus “such as.”

2 comments

  1. Samuel Chesebro - June 15, 2016 7:47 am

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    • admin - June 16, 2016 3:30 am

      Thanks for reading, Samuel!