Punctuation: The Proof’s in the Details

I tend to rant a lot about resumes, and it might sound like complaining to some people, but honestly, these resume rants usually come from a place of astonishment, because it just seems so danged obvious to me that if you want someone to want to interview you, and the only thing they have to judge you on is your resume, then you should want your resume to show you at your best.

And one thing that screams “don’t count on me to have any attention to detail because I can’t even proofread when my career depends on it” is distractingly, blatantly, carelessly wrong punctuation.

Many of the punctuation-error-ridden resumes I see are from people who are not native English speakers. Believe me, I have great appreciation for the challenges of learning the subtleties of another language. I’ve been studying the Thai language for the past six years, and boy oh boy. I have a feeling I’ll never get to a point of fluency. It’s a tough language.

English is a tough language, too, and its punctuation is confusing even for people who are experts. That’s why editors keep reference books at hand… to double-check when to use a semicolon and when to use a colon, when to use a comma vs. parentheses, and the ins and outs of capitalizing words. When in doubt, they look it up.

Because even if it’s tricky, it still has to be right.

As far as punctuation, technical resumes can be some of the worst offenders, occasionally defying standards and ignoring rules altogether, just listing as much information as possible in dense clusters of acronyms and codes.

I know a lot of engineers and tech folks believe their background should speak for itself, regardless of the quality of their resume, and after all, rules about spelling and punctuation have become much more flexible with the age of email and blogging. If the information is there, some have said to me, what’s the big deal.

But think about it… if you are someone whose job requires you to be precise and accurate, and to produce quality work, shouldn’t your resume demonstrate and reflect your precision and accuracy, and the quality of your work?

The truth is, you want to be showing that one of your strengths is paying attention to details and generating a high standard of work, but if you present me with a resume filled with errors, the reader is just not going to believe you. And they’re certainly not going to be impressed.

Here are a few of the most easy to find, problems, with some tips for fixing them:

Commas: Commas are versatile and have many uses. For instance, they set off introductory phrases like the one in this sentence; they separate items, names or categories in a list like this; and they also separate phrases in a sentence, as I’m doing right here. Use a comma where you’d take a breath when speaking, but don’t get carried away.

The comma goes immediately after the word, with no space before it… this for some reason is an incredibly common error. When you use a comma ,don’t do it like this. That looks silly, doesn’t it? Yet I get resumes where every single comma is placed that way.

It’s standard to use a comma between the city and state if you’re spelling out the state, but not when you’re using the two-letter postal abbreviation (so it’s San Francisco, California but San Francisco CA). That one’s not such a biggie, as long as you’re consistent.

Capitalization: This one’s another mystery to me: when strange Words are Capitalized for no apparent Reason, or for freeform emphasis, as if there were no Rules at all. But there are rules for which words get capitalized and which don’t.

Proper nouns, such as names of people, places, companies and brand names or trademarks should be capitalized. Official titles and department names are capitalized, but it is not appropriate to capitalize words for emphasis. So you would say you were Director of the Customer Service Department but you wouldn’t say you were responsible for overseeing Service for Customers.

(Parentheses), [brackets] and {curly brackets}: These are all used in different ways, few of which apply to resumes, where the goal is to be straightforward and to the point. If you have any doubt about which bracket is used when, it’s probably a good idea to keep it simple and stick to parentheses.

Parentheses go around phrases (such as this one) that are not necessary for the sentence to make sense. In resumes, parentheses can be an efficient way to convey information, in phrases like (laid off after acquisition) or (one of the world’s largest retailers) but don’t overuse them.

Like commas, people often insert extra space inside parentheses where none needs to be. Put the bracket tight around the phrase they bracket (with no space between the bracket and the word it is enclosing, like this) rather than putting any extra space inside the parentheses ( like this ).

Square and curly brackets are used in the editorial, mathematical, phonetic, programming and poetry worlds, but I doubt you’ll need them in your resume, unless you are making specific scientific, academic or legal citations that require a defined structure.

Slash: You can use a slash to separate two connected things, such as and/or or sales/marketing, but don’t add any space before or after the slash.

Double spaces: There should be one space between words. So if you’re someone who types fast and furious, or cuts and pastes a lot, then learn to do a “find and replace” in your word processing program so you can search for places you have an extra space. Nit-picky? Maybe. But there are people, like me, who will notice.

It’s and its: Confusing these two is common, and spell-check won’t catch it. If you would otherwise say “it is,” then use the apostrophe, because “it’s” is a contraction of those two words. The possessive of “it” becomes “its” with no apostrophe, just like the possessive of “her” becomes “hers” with no apostrophe. So you would say “the company lost its funding” but never “the company lost it’s funding.” Remembering this will come in handy with all kinds of writing beyond your resume.

“Curly quotes”: Curly quotes (also called “smart quotes”) are generally preferred to straight quotation marks. You can set a preference in your word processing program (in my version of Word, it’s under Tools/Auto Correct Options/Autoformat).

Check that your quotation marks are going the right direction, and watch for one area where the computer won’t do it right. This happens when you format the years on your resume as ‘05 instead of 2005. See how the quote in ’05 is going the wrong way? To avoid this, you can outsmart your software by typing “x’05″ and then deleting the “x” – so you end up with ’05. See the difference? (I hope that makes sense, and if anyone knows a better shortcut for that, I’d like to hear about it.)

The placement of quotation marks is one of the areas where the American writing style (which puts quote marks outside other punctuation, like periods, commas and semicolons) differs from British style (which puts the quotes inside the punctuation).

For punctuation and spelling, follow the local standards for wherever your job search is, not for where you’re from. If your intention is to work in a certain country, then your resume or CV needs to be written in the style that the people there expect to see.

Then, when you think you’ve got it right, proof it by using your computer’s built-in spelling and grammar software, and for the final check, enlist the help of an eagle-eyed friend or two.

You probably know that, if you tell it to, Microsoft Word will underline misspelled words in red and grammatical errors (including extra spaces as well as incorrect grammar) in green. If it’s not doing that for you, go to your Tools menu, choose Options, and check the “check spelling as you type” and “check grammar as you type” boxes. (These are the instructions in my version, but yours may have a different interface, so you may have to check the Help function.)

There are all sorts of preferences you can set for automatically fixing common mistakes and typos in Word (and no doubt other software, but Word is what I work with), so if you haven’t explored this capability in your word processing software, check it out and see what it can do for you.

You can also do a quick “find” and “replace” (Edit/Find or Edit/Replace in my version’s menu), telling the program to look for any double space and replace it with a single space, or to find any space followed by a comma, and replace it with a single space or comma followed by a space.

Don’t forget to proof for consistency, too. For example, often people will write June 2001 – July 2004 in one job, but the previous job will say 11/99-6/01, with the dates or layout in a totally different format.

Check for consistency in all areas of formatting throughout your resume, reviewing and re-reviewing it with a fine-tooth comb. Look to see if bullets are the same style, if the indents are consistent, and that the formatting layout of the company information is exactly the same in each job.

And finally, get a friend or two, or three, people who are English and punctuation whizzes, to proofread your resume for you. It’s always a good idea to have as many pairs of eyes proofreading for you as you can. Ask them to be on the double-lookout for punctuation errors.

Some of this stuff might seem petty. I mean, really, is someone going to pass you over for an interview because your apostrophe went the wrong direction?

No, unless it’s for a proofreading job, they probably won’t. And with email correspondence today, no one freaks out when there’s a typo or error. I’d bet money that there are some grammar and punctuation errors in this blog, probably more than a couple, and I’m not going to get crazy about it. It’s not that important, as long as you understand me.

But your resume is different. It must be perfect.

Your resume is about beginning to create the image that you want someone to have of you, through how you choose to present yourself on paper (or computer screen). When someone reads your resume, you want them to be getting the best possible impression, and any error, even a comma in the wrong place, will distract them from that.

So don’t be afraid to be a nit-picker, because when it comes to resumes, the proof really is in the details.

And if I’ve just totally confused you, and my explanations don’t make sense, there’s some interesting history and explanations here.

And for more resume tips, get my free ebook “Ten Reasons Your Resume Ends Up in the Trash (and what you can do about it)” by signing up for my mailing list… so check that out right here.

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