“I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 27th, 2012

If you use poor grammar, don’t look for a job at online repair community iFixit. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, CEO and founder Kyle Wiens describes his no apologies approach to hiring. “If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me,” he writes. “If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.”

Everyone who applies for a job at Wiens’ companies takes a mandatory grammar test.  “If job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin,” he writes.  Too harsh?  Too bad.  Grammar, he notes, is relevant for all companies.

“Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

But grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right?  Wiens is having none of it. “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.” he writes.

“Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”

It’s a nice reminder that the real world has its own stubborn metrics for judging how well we prepare our students and how they will be perceived.  Mark Bauerlein made a similar point not long ago about the real world value of cultural literacy.  “It counts a lot more in professional spheres than academics and educators realize,” he wrote.

Wiens’ piece has struck a nerve.  (Wait.  Should that be “Wiens’ piece?”  Or “Wiens’s piece?” I’m suddenly self-conscious)  An astonishing 1800 reader comments have been posted since it went up a week ago.  Many have taken delight in spotting errors made by Wiens himself. “Could I politely point out that ‘to properly use it’s’ is a split infinitive and incorrect?” chides one.  “Why is your company called ‘iFixit’ and not ‘I fix it’ then?” says another.  No small number take issue with Wiens dismissing creativity, leadership, and people skills in favor of mere pedantry.

Maybe so.  But he’s the boss.

16 Comments »

  1. I think it was Robin Hanson who recently pointed out that if employers genuinely preferred “creative” minds uninhibited by social and intellectual convention, alcohol would be more popular on the job than caffeine.

    Comment by Paul Bruno — July 27, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  2. It is not necessarily “pedantry” to insist that things be done correctly, and communicating clearly within the parameters of the English (or whatever) language and its grammar is part of doing a job right. It is possible to do so while also having creativity and leadership, just as it is possible to be dressed appropriately while being a leader and being creative.

    Comment by Broeck Oder — July 27, 2012 @ 11:10 am

  3. Can “making fewer mistakes” be taught? What does the research say?

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — July 27, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

  4. @ Tom I suspect the research would say that deep domain knowledge plus practice would be the way to make fewer mistakes. Learn grammar, use it a lot, make fewer mistakes. Elsewhere today, I saw a bit of research connecting texting and bad grammar. I wonder if practicing the wrong thing — c u l8er — subverts the mastery and practice process.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 27, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

  5. @Tom – I think what the literature indicates is that it’s not so much that you teach “making fewer mistakes”, but rather that you deliberately practice “performing the correct procedure”, and that consequently reduces mistake-making. There’s plenty in the literature on deliberate practice.

    Comment by Paul Bruno — July 27, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

  6. I would add to Robert’s #4 and Paul’s #5 that Wiens is promoting the idea — embedded in the conventions of grammar and punctuation — that it is good to have employees who subordinate their own inclinations to the more challenging goal of communicating cleanly to a customer/audience. The humility and respect in writing correctly probably doesn’t correlate negatively with the having a creative approach to problem-solving or product design.

    (By the way: both “Wiens’s” and “Wiens’” are correct. The former would be incorrect only if the basic form of the noun were “Wien”; it would be incorrect to say “students’s”, for example.)

    Comment by Carl Rosin — July 28, 2012 @ 10:25 am

  7. Challenge I see is that writing is rarely taught with a focus on grammar at least in my neck of the woods. It just seems to be slipped in. I personally can’t remember it ever being taught outside one 8th grade class. I get a feeling that most teachers go along the lines that it is not tested so therefore not a focus in the classroom. Does the common core provide renewed emphasis on knowing grammatical structure?

    Comment by DC Parent — July 29, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

  8. Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect. Just ask any athletic coach.

    If teachers don’t correct grammar mistakes, then students won’t practice using correct grammar. (And, yes, parents and other adults in authority should correct improper speaking and writing as well.)

    Robert and Carl, Strunk and White’s (The Elements of Style) rule number 1 for usage is “Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s”, so I would go with “Weins’s”.

    Comment by Anonymous — July 30, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  9. DC Parent (#7): You’re right: grammar is not rigorously attended to after middle school — but it really should be taught rigorously in 6th-8th if that’s not happening already. My sense is that high school’s enhanced focus on fluency, organization, and argumentation makes that appropriate. We had better not ignore grammar in high school, but we can’t focus on everything every year. What I want to see in my district’s curriculum: know what has been taught in the past, and leverage (instead of re-teaching) whenever possible.

    Anonymous (#8): I agree that “Wiens’s” should be used; my point was only that (as suggested by these two valuable modern resources: http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/apostro.asp and http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/621/01/) adding the ‘s is not required, my favorite grammarians’ “rule number 1″ notwithstanding.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — July 30, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  10. Geoffrey K Pullum writes in Language Log: “As I write these words, the number of comments posted below Kyle Wiens’s strangely contentless piece in Harvard Business Review, ‘I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why’, is just coasting up toward 1200 (yes, one thousand two hundred; that’s not a typo). This cannot be out of any enthusiasm for grammar: the number of grammar issues mentioned in the piece is zero. Wiens says or implies that he wants employees who know the difference between apostrophes and apostles; between semicolons and colons; between to and too; between its and it’s; and between their, there, and they’re. But this isn’t about grammar; these are just elementary vocabulary and spelling distinctions. How could it possibly be of interest to Harvard Business Review readers that the CEO of a technical documentation company expects his employees to be able to spell different words differently? I like literacy too, but why this fiddling with spelling shibboleths while the economy burns?” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4093

    Comment by Harold — July 31, 2012 @ 12:45 am

  11. From the folks who gave us Enron and other horrors — Harvard Business School is a bad joke.

    Comment by Harold — July 31, 2012 @ 11:02 am

  12. Ranting aside, this perfectly illustrates the emptiness of business education unmoored from a strong foundation in the liberal arts (“arts” means skills, BTW). The writers, readers, fans and editors of the Harvard Business Review are hopelessly confused about of the concept of “grammar”, believing it to be simply synonymous with spelling.

    Comment by Harold — August 1, 2012 @ 10:20 am

  13. Split infinitives are bad style but not necessarily incorrect grammar. There are differences as well as overlaps between style and correctness. And I go with “Wiens’s.”

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 1, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

  14. This shows that the feather brained flim-flam men of Harvard B school don’t have a clue and could care less, about what constitutes grammar. They are too busy figuring out how to manipulate the LIBOR rates, destroy the unions, and evade taxes.

    Comment by Harold — August 3, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  15. Who would want to work for this ass anyway? So crippled by his rules of grammar and pointing out his self proclaimed inability to process content or comprehend his own limitation to create anything other than rout learning. he must really hate Twain’s veneculars in Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? Yes grammar is important but people who can’t bring anything to the table but an ability to spell and perfect grammar aren’t usually creative thinkers and problem solvers. What you do at the table is what makes you a collaborator. This man would bar any creative thinker from the table but ones he deems perfect. Content is what keeps you interested and a computer can spell check and edit grammar, but can a computer create a plot and tell a story. Exclusion of the differently abled and bully picking on people who’s brains are different his is what this guy represents.

    Comment by Lisa — August 4, 2012 @ 2:57 am

  16. Who would want to work for this ass anyway? So crippled by his rules of grammar and pointing out his self proclaimed inability to process content or comprehend his own limitation to create anything other than rout learning. he must really hate Twain’s veneculars in Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? Yes grammar is important but people who can’t bring anything to the table but an ability to spell and perfect grammar aren’t usually creative thinkers and problem solvers. What you do at the table is what makes you a collaborator. This man would bar any creative thinker from the table but ones he deems perfect. Content is what keeps you interested and a computer can spell check and edit grammar, but can a computer create a plot and tell a story. Exclusion of the differently abled and a bully picking on people who’s brains are different than his is what this guy represents.

    Comment by Lisa — August 4, 2012 @ 2:59 am

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