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April 09, 2012  |  Can spelling be irrelevant even on a resume?  |  1404 hit(s)

A follow up to last week's post (I am conflicted about typos). In that post, I mused about whether it really was that big a deal for people to confuse words like principal and principle, given how confusing English spelling is and how hard it seems to be for otherwise intelligent people to keep these sorts of things straight.[1]

Reg Braithwaite actually went me one better last week and asks whether typos are important at all. Here's the money shot from the blog entry in which he discusses this, talking about candidates for a programmer job:
The problem with filtering people by spelling mistake is that we're making up a little theory about whether a spelling mistake tells us something important about the candidate's abilities. Which would be fine if we didn't have anything else to go by, but we do have something else to go by, we have their resumé and their code samples and we can call them on the phone and talk to them. So I gnore the little theories and go with what really matters.
The man has a point: if the candidate can code like a demon, exactly how does it matter whether he or she can spell? Even on his/her resume.

I realize that people are ... offended ... by spelling errors, but the question here is when is and when isn't spelling ability an issue? I don't have to make much of a case in favor of having mad spelling skillz, since the default presumption is that everyone should have 'em. Braithwaite alludes to a theory that people develop in the face of spelling errors. One popular theory is that bad spellers are lazy. Another is the idea that attention to detail in spelling is indicative of equivalent attention in other areas. Braithwaite is essentially challenging this idea, and I've started to have my doubts as well. I mean, is there proof for these theories? Is spelling really just a version of how one dresses, a criterion that was long ago discarded in the world of high-tech as correlated with skill or "professionalism"?

So: spelling might be a superficial and essentially meaningless criterion for judging people. Mind you, if you're hiring someone to be a fashion consultant or even salesperson (dress) or editor (spelling), these things do matter. The trick would then be to learn when it does and doesn't.

Suppose you have a plumbing problem in your house. You read through ads looking for a plumber. If you have no other information, you'll be affected by the look of the ad, including whether things are misspelled, and you might pass up a plumber who can't seem to keep their-they're-there straight. But suppose that a friend says "Oh, you should call Pat the Plumber, because they're outstanding and cheap and fast. Although, haha, I bet they misspell something on your bill." Well, now you have more information, and the plumber's spelling skills are no longer really relevant. Right?

[1] As Django rightly noted in the comments on that entry, it would be useful to have a word for this type of confusion besides just typo, which implies a mechanical failure.

Kemp   14 Apr 12 - 12:27 PM

I think there is an important distinction between making the odd typo (which happens to anyone), not bothering to use writing skills, and not having writing skills.

There are too many people who fall into the second category, often (depending on their age) giving the excuse that school is the only place it matters and everyone can understand them anyway... right? Surprisingly I've seen a number of older people falling into this category as well. These are not people I would trust to get the job done correctly.

Making the odd typo, on the other hand, is not something that I feel should be penalised. It's a silly mistake, yes, but I'm sure we've all done it in an important document at some point.

The third category... I'm not qualified to speak to the best solution there.

mike   16 Apr 12 - 1:18 AM

>These are not people I would trust to get the job done correctly.

I think (?) Braithwaite's point is that someone's spelling tells you about their spelling skills and that can't be extrapolated to other fields of effort. It does seem to be common to make a connection between spelling and some other skill, including a generalized "attention to detail." But is that legitimate?

I think that the analogy to how one dresses is useful here. For certain skillsets most of us agree that the way a person dresses does not say much about how that person can do this other thing. Coders (especially Unix programmers, hahaha) are stereotypically uninterested in dressing sharp, and Microsoft and other companies have a very tolerant dress code because of this. (Who cares how they dress, how well can they code?) Ditto for, dunno, plumbers or car mechanics or jazz musicians or whoever: the point is the skill they really are interested in as opposed to their relationship to clothes. (In contrast, at IBM and Safeco, they won't hire you if you won't play by their dress code, no matter how talented you are.)

Following this analogy, who cares how well a programmer (or plumber or mechanic or musician) can spell? If they spell poorly, what does it tell you about the skill that they actually do care about? I believe Braithwaite is saying it tells you very little.

Of course, it never hurts to have and use good writing skills. (Joel Spolsky: "the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably.") But to get back to Braithwaite's original point, would you refuse to hire an obviously super-talented programmer because he has sloppy spelling?

Kemp   16 Apr 12 - 2:39 AM

I think we're conflicting over two slightly different things things here.

I was aiming my comments at people who don't see the need to apply their spelling and grammar skills when communicating. I don't see that as being a big jump away from "well, I *could* refactor this code, but... you know... it works". I also don't see them writing extensive or useful documentation for their code.

Of course, I could be completely wrong on this. I haven't been responsible for hiring people in the past. I have seen my share of lazy coders though...

As a nitpick, I would say that plumbers have a very sensible dress code for their job - anything that they don't mind being covered in grease and dirty water :) If a plumber turned up in a business suit I'm not sure I'd trust him to get the job done.

mike   17 Apr 12 - 8:03 AM

> If a plumber turned up in a business suit I'm not sure I'd trust him to get the job done.

Heh. That's the guy they send out in advance to sell you their state-of-the-art Roto-Cleaning System(tm) and their Peace-of-Mind Ever-Clear Extended Plumbing Warranty(tm). :-)

Yes, I think we are talking about different things -- simply not having certain skills (spelling) versus just not caring about stuff. No one wants to hire the latter, I don't think. :-)

Albertina   24 Apr 12 - 8:27 AM

> Braithwaite's point is that someone's spelling tells you about their spelling skills and that can't be extrapolated to other fields of effort.

I agree to a certain extent, and I freely admit that I don't have a clue how well my plumber can spell. He doesn't have any ads or an internet presence at all because he gets by entirely on recommendations. He's that amazing. And his handwriting is so bad I couldn't tell if he misspelled something, anyway.

However, someone's spelling can be a tipping point when you make a decision. A person with excellent code? Great. A person with excellent code who also took the time to make his resume look good? Even better. Communication skills in general may not be part of the essential skill set, but they are always desirable.