Grammar Lessons All Job Seekers Should Know

grammar errors resume cover letterBy Kaitlin Madden

When applying for a job, there are few faster ways to get your résumé and cover letter thrown out of contention than by making a glaring grammatical error.

These days, human resources departments and hiring managers are flooded with résumés. They have to be narrowed down somehow, and grammatical errors are an easy way to eliminate applicants.

"In an era of spell check, easily edited documents and instantly shared 'can you give this a look' emails, typos and grammatical errors on résumés and/or cover letters are pretty much unforgivable," says Sean Smith, president of Third Street, an Indianapolis-based marketing company. "The message sent by typing 'too' when it should be 'to' can literally be the difference between getting the nod or getting a no."

Here is a proofreading checklist for your résumé and cover letter.

1. Know your homophones

Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings, like too, to and two. Using the correct version on your résumé is crucial.

"The misuse of your/you're, there/their/they're, and to/too/two occurs more times than I care to dwell on," says Marisa Brayman, a Web developer and blogger for Stadri Emblems, a company that designs embroidered patches. "If someone uses one of these incorrectly on a cover letter, he can say goodbye to his chances of ever landing a decent job. If this is due to a simple typo, that is one thing; however, in my humble opinion, if the individual doesn't know the difference between these basic words and has never bothered to take an hour out of his or her life to learn it, he or she is not deserving of landing a decent job."

A quick refresher:

Their, they're, there

  • Their: The possessive form of "they." ("Applicants submitted their error-free cover letters.")
  • They're: The contraction of "they are." ("I think they're getting the hang of this grammar thing.")
  • There: A location. ("The pile of cover letters is over there.")

Two, too, to

  • Two: A number. ("There are two applicants in the lobby.")
  • Too: Also. ("I'd like to be interviewed for the job, too.")
  • To: A preposition or infinitive. ("I'm going to apply.")

Your, you're

  • Your: The possessive form of "you." ("Don't forget to proofread your résumé.)
  • You're: The contraction of "you are." ("I have a feeling you're going to get this job.")

It's, its

The best-selling grammar bible, "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" by Lynne Truss, best describes the difference between these two words:

"To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as 'Thank God its Friday' (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive 'its' (no apostrophe) with the contractive 'it's' (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian 'kill' response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word 'it's' (with apostrophe) stands for 'it is' or 'it has.' If the word does not stand for 'it is' or 'it has' then what you require is 'its.' This is extremely easy to grasp."

Some other common homophones you should know:

  • Whose and who's
  • Every day and everyday

2. Use apostrophes properly

Apostrophes are used for a few reasons:

  • They indicate the possessive: "In my last job, I managed the CEO's calendar."
  • They indicate the omission of letters in words (i.e., in contractions).
  • They indicate the exclusion of numbers in dates: "I graduated college in '05."
  • They indicate time or quantity: "I must give my current employers two weeks' notice."

Be sure to check your résumé for proper use of apostrophes, as well as for any erroneous punctuation. Apostrophes do not, for example, indicate the plural form of a singular noun. It is incorrect to say "I developed orientation programs to help new employee's get acclimated to the company."

3. Keep tenses consistent

"Building lists correctly is important," says Christina Zila, director of communications at, a Las Vegas-based content-creation firm. "Use consistent verb tenses: If you start your job duties with 'managing multiple employees,' don't have your next point as 'prepared annual reports' but 'preparing annual reports.'"

Similarly, as a general rule, all activities or accomplishments that you completed in the past should be in the past tense. Activities that you perform now should be in the present tense. This should be kept consistent throughout your résumé.

4. Proofread and then proofread again

The bottom line is that proofreading your application materials before submitting them is a must.

"There are enough people with bad grammar pet peeves that there is virtually no position out there where grammar doesn't matter," says Debra Yergen, author of the "Creating Job Security Resource Guide." "Since a basic search-engine inquiry for 'grammar pet peeves' nets more than 400,000 returns, it's safe to say that hiring managers are paying close attention to grammar and other résumé and cover-letter errors. Read and reread everything you write for a job application, and if you doubt yourself even slightly, run your submission past someone you trust."

Kaitlin Madden is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.

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Shame! Shame! Shame! When I first came to America, I was laughed at because I didn't have an American Accent. I got passed over for positions, because of my accent. When I was given a test or assignment to write up IP's for my clients, I came out on top. I was born in Guyana, which was under British rule and had an excellent education, even though I did not go to college. I was quite surprised when I was taking a computer class and my fellow American Students did not know basic Math and English.

March 09 2012 at 8:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Boros

At least i have a good excuse, my mother language is not English, still good to have a good grammar.

March 07 2012 at 6:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
D.A. Gutierrez

Bullet point #4 on item #2 is so wrong as to make this entire article laughable. (i.e. the one that starts with "They indicate time or quantity") How can I trust anything you've written if that bullet point is so dead wrong?

Let me explain:
Use of an apostrophe has nothing to do with time or quantity. If I were to follow your advice I'd start writing such gems as:
- "I am going to Florida for two weeks'." [INCORRECT]
- "I just ate two apples'." [INCORRECT]

Yes, the example in your sentence is correct ("I must give my current employers two weeks' notice.") but only by passing chance. (not because it has to do with time or quantity)

Want to know why it's ACTUALLY right?
----> Because you are indicating posession. (as mentioned in your bullet point #1)

However, "weeks" is already plural... so what do we do? Here's the rule:
- When you are indicating possession on a word that is plural (and ends in an "s") you use an apostrophe, but you put it AFTER the "s".

This results in CORRECT usage, such as:
- "I am going to my parents' house tonight." [CORRECT]
- "Let's go over to the Smiths' place." [CORRECT]

I urge you to PLEASE correct this article before you start leading people over the cliff of incorrect punctuation usage. (and maybe even start costing them jobs!)

March 03 2012 at 3:33 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to D.A. Gutierrez's comment
Luke Talbot

Thank you so much for this post, it saves me the time and effort of doing the same. I literally stopped reading the moment I saw this mistake. What a great way make your entire article null and void.

March 07 2012 at 9:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kaitlin Madden

Hi D.A.,
As the author of this post, I wanted to reiterate the apostrophes are, indeed, used to designate time or quantity (i.e. "I gave my two weeks' notice," or "I sold several thousand dollars' worth of merchandise"). The following links help to explain this:
Hope that helps-

March 11 2012 at 11:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
the Smoking Captain

This depend on job type you apply! Great artists, designers & more.. Many people care so much about grammar on social media sites before but now? A good interviewer requires ASK - Attitude, Skills & Knowledge.

March 02 2012 at 9:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to the Smoking Captain's comment
Luke Talbot

@The Smoking Captain: I don't think it does depend on the type of job, unless you are referring to a low-paid role with weekly pay-checks. Furthermore, your own lack of basic grammar, incorrect use of punctuation and poor sentence structure indicate that you should maybe pay more attention to the advice people give you.

As for ASK, I don't know how many people you've been the interviewer for, but if you are looking for their attitude, skills and knowledge it all starts with their resume. Poor grammar, punctuation, spelling and sentence structure indicate that they didn't pay too much attention at school and paid even less attention to putting together their application or CV.

What kind of attitude does that demonstrate?

March 07 2012 at 9:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Hotel Room King

Great advice. Thanks so much for the helpful tips!!

March 02 2012 at 10:55 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Very useful, thanks. I posted my resume on before I read this article and that was a mistake.

March 01 2012 at 9:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I found this resume on a website that is written extremely well. I have often reverted back to this website for tips on how to write my own resume.

February 26 2012 at 1:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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