After years of reviewing résumés first as a recruiter, and now as an executive personal brand strategist, I’ve seen my share of qualified candidates miss out on fantastic job opportunities because of lazily placed apostrophes or incorrect homonyms.
While we all know our résumés shouldn’t contain grammatical errors, most résumés are far from perfect: by my estimates a whopping 60% of them contain at least one typo, not to mention the tricky grammar slip-ups most recruiters see on a daily basis.
Even if you’re confident your résumé is in tip top shape, it’s probably worth taking a look at these common grammatical misses, or as I like to call them:
All the (grammatical) ways your wrong.
Sorry…I just couldn’t resist.
1. APOSTROPHE CATASTROPHES.
Apostrophic confusion has inspired impressively passionate responses among grammar watchers, with entire websites and days of honour dedicated to this seemingly simple piece of punctuation.
Even if you’ve yet to jump on the International Apostrophe Day bandwagon (April 16, in case you were wondering), and don’t foresee yourself ever doing so, you still need to know how to wield apostrophes with accuracy.
Use An Apostrophe, Followed By An “S”:
- To indicate singular possessive, such as the strategic vision of one CEO. For example:
“Implemented the CEO’s strategic vision, overseeing people, budget and technology to hit key milestones and overarching objectives.”
- To indicate singular possessive on words ending in the letter s, such as strategic priorities of the business. For example:
“Managed people, budgets and technology to drive the achievement of the business’s strategic priorities.”
Note: using a bare apostrophe (without an “s”), is also a correct, albeit less modern, usage. For example:
“Managed people, budgets and technology to drive the achievement of the business’ strategic priorities.”
- Expressions indicating years of experience. For example:
“Possessing 23 years’ journalism experience, I am an award-winning reporter, editor and author.”
Note: this is also grammatically correct:
“Possessing 23 years of writing experience…”
- To express contractions of It Is or It Has (although it’s best to avoid contractions on your résumé). Here are a few examples:
“Despite the company’s lagging performance, it’s continuing to make investments in the future.”
“Having been employed with the same company for 15 years, it’s been a long time since my last job interview.”
Use A Bare Apostrophe, Without An “S”:
- To indicate the plural possessive, with words where the plural is formed by adding an s, such as the council attended by chefs. For example:
“Partnered with farmers, suppliers, restaurants and industry associations to maintain integrity of the guiding principles agreed upon during the biennial Chefs’ Council.”
Do Not Use An Apostrophe:
- To express decades, such as the nineties. For example:
“Reversed declining revenue and restored profitability to levels unseen since the 1990s.”
- To express plurals, including plural versions of acronyms:
“The finance and production teams collaborated to solve the problem and reposition the business.”
“The group of CEOs agreed upon 5 fundamental principles to guide their joint code of ethics.”
- To express the possessive of it, the correct form of which is its:
“Despite the company’s lagging performance in the market, its future is bright.”
2. MISMATCHED VERB TENSES.
This is one of those concepts that most of us intuitively get, but is challenging to put into practice.
Without getting too technical, the idea is that verb tenses need to agree with one another within a clause, sentence, or section; otherwise, it’s difficult to accurately portray timing and sequencing, and comes across as awkward to the reader.
In résumés, I most often see this mistake within a single role: the duties start out using one tense, switch to another tense, before shifting back to the first one (or something entirely new). Take a look:
“Collaborated with the CFO and senior finance stakeholders to plan annual budgets, influencing spending allocation to secure needed capital investment and modernisation funds.”
“Create and build risk strategies capable of meeting the business’s needs.”
Notice the jarring transition from point 1 to point 2, when the leading verb shifts from simple past to simple present. Awkward, isn’t it? Mismatched verb tenses also come up in sentences and clauses, and make for an even more uncomfortable read:
“Developed and implemented the annual strategic plan, building budgets and developed key milestones for success.”
Finally – and possibly the most common verb mistake in résumés – is the misuse of “to lead”. Let’s refresh, shall we: Led is the past tense of lead:
“In 1999, I led a 5-person team, but today I lead up to 100 specialists.”
3. MISTAKEN HOMONYMS.
Closely related to the lead vs. led issue are homonyms, which you may remember from primary school as words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
In my experience, there are 10 homonym pairs that are commonly mistaken on résumés, beyond the glaringly obvious sets like there/their/they’re and to/too/two.
I call these the “landmine words,” because they’re exceptionally difficult to spot, but can do a lot of damage:
- Insure / Ensure
- Principal / Principle
- Affect / Effect
- Council / Counsel
- Effect / Affect
- Elicit /Illicit
- Advice / Advise
- Lose / Loose
- Precede / Proceed
- Confident / Confidant
Some of these are tricky enough that I occasionally miss them in my own writing, which is why several editors review every single Arielle résumé.
When it comes to avoiding the landmine homonyms, I recommend taking 10 minutes to use the search function in your word processing software to find and double check each use.
4. SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT.
Often overlooked by your computer’s spelling and grammar function, this is an easy one to mess up. In grammatically correct sentences, the subject of the sentence agrees with the verb of the sentence:
While this may seem obvious, it gets tricky when you have to write about collective nouns, as you often do on résumés: staff, team, the media, the police, etc. Consider the following:
“The staff is satisfied with the new HR policies.”
“The staff are satisfied with the new HR policies.”
Which is correct?
While in British English, most collective nouns can be treated as either singular or plural, depending on context, Australian English tends to favour the singular form.
The key is to be consistent; ideally, you’ll pick one form throughout your entire résumé, but at the very least you should ensure consistent collective noun-verb agreement in each section or sentence, unlike here:
“The team is currently working toward end-of-year targets; while they have performed well within the context of the economic slowdown, they are still achieving far below the hoped for levels.”
5. RELYING ON PASSIVE VOICE.
Ever since high school, I’ve been taught to avoid passive voice like the plague.
During university, I remember one professor marking large swathes of my paper with red pen, penalising a percentage of the final grade for every unnecessary use (which was most of them).
Despite most business professionals equating passive writing with bad writing, résumés are still filled with passive constructions, and I completely understand the temptation: passive voice seems fancy!
At the end of the day, however, it’s missing two of the hallmarks of great writing: directness and clarity. It’s harder to read, uses more words to say the same thing, comes across as stuffy, and beyond being unnecessary, it detracts from your message and personal brand.
Which of the following makes you sound like more of a leader?
“Over 30% cost reductions were achieved during tenure.”
“Drove 30% cost reductions over the course of tenure.”
While there are a few situations whereby a passive sentence or clause is appropriate, for the most part, passive writing is more difficult to scan and understand, and takes up valuable real estate with unnecessary words. Stick to the active voice.
KEY POINT TO REMEMBER:
While making mistakes is a part of life, it really shouldn’t be a part of your résumé.
If you’re like most people (myself included), and are your own worst editor, enlist friends and family to help, or hire a professional to write your resume.