Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How Far to Stickle

I am readying to leave the first week of August for two weeks "Down East," so I will join in the spirit of summertime by being brief, if not breezy, this month.

On July 20,  the Harvard Business Review blog site posted an entry by Kyle Wiens entitled: "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why." Wiens, CEO of Ifixit.com, the world's largest online repair manual and Dozuki, which helps companies write technical documentation, requires every job applicant to take a grammar test, regardless of the nature of the position. Wiens admits "we write for a living" and perhaps has higher standards about language usage than most (by the way he takes into account extenuating circumstances such as dyslexia and English as a second language). Poor test scores or errors like mixing up "to" and "too" means the application goes into the circular file. Period.

Wiens would be known as a grammar "stickler" the term Lynne Truss uses in her delightful book "Eats, Shoots & Leaves - the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation."  Wiens defends his stern policy as being a way to ferret out sloppiness and inattention to detail. He claims that those who do better in the grammar test will make fewer mistakes even in non-writing tasks, such as labeling parts or stocking shelves.

I have reviewed hundreds of resumes and cover letters in my career and sympathize with Wiens's position. Improper spelling and screwy usage is an effective filter, for reasons Wiens outlines. These days, with tweets, emails and real time online chats, the chances grow that sticklers will be faced with greater challenges.

Added to spelling and punctuation whoppers are the odd phrases that have cropped up in everyday life. For instance, "you're welcome," as a reply to expression of gratitude or a compliment for good service, has been replaced by "no problem." I keep wanting to respond that I was not aware of there having been a problem in the first place. And what about that supremely irritating "Whatever..."  This dismissive word,with its tone, indicates the speaker can't be bothered with further discussion. If we ever see this written at the end of a Supreme Court opinion, we are in trouble.

Job applicants can't depend on computer spell checking either. It has been long corrected, but in 2008 when I happened to type in "Obama" in a document, the dreaded yellow outline was superimposed and suggested I should correct it to "Osama."  Ironic, no?

My friend and mentor the New Orleans attorney Thomas B. Lemann (see my blog of January) deserves a place in the Stickler Hall of Fame. He is well known to newspaper editors, including The New York Times, who have received any number of complaints regarding improper usage. On his desk is a plaque given to him by an admirer: "Which Hunter."  The frequent misuse of "which" for "that" is a favorite target of Mr. Lemann.

Sticklers enjoy debates among their number. James Thurber and his editor (THE editor) of The New Yorker Harold Ross had a famous long-running battle over the use of commas.  Ross favored them; Thurber did not. An example of this style dispute can be found regarding the description of our flag. Thurber wanted red white and blue; Ross insisted on red, white, and blue. Thurber complained: "All those commas make the flag seemed rained on. They give it a furled look. Leave them out and Old Glory is flung to the breeze as it should be."

How far to stickle? The Wiens approach is not an academic exercise; it results in action, unfair or not. He believes that good writing is important and indicates clarity of mind. If its basic rules are violated, then that sends a behavioral signal.  It is arguably an extreme position. By the way, his blog prompted 2400 comments, ranging from Boo to Bravo. Quite a few even challenged his grammar.  Perhaps you will want to take a crack at mine. I would be delighted. It means you have read the blog and I can always stand corrected. Now I must return to my packing.

Comments always welcome below ot at: info@geoffreyplattconsulting.com