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June 4th, 2008

Does good English matter in the real world?

by Barbara Wallraff

Isaac Webster, of Detroit, writes: “Do employers really care if employees know how to write and speak English correctly? I’m a frustrated liberal arts grad who attended law school for two years. One thing I think I do well is write and speak English. I ask my question because I’ve never known an employer to value the ability to use English well. I’ve worked for supervisors who could not spell. I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t read, or at least read well enough to do their job. Knowing English well hasn’t made a difference in my life financially.”

Dear Isaac: I’m sorry your interest in language doesn’t seem to have done you any good (yet!). But generally speaking, yes, you bet, writing and speaking skills are worth real money.

Let’s start with the idea that everyone can “read well enough to do their job.” Actually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one in five North American adults is functionally illiterate. A reason you may not have noticed these people is that 40 percent of them are unemployed.

Toward the other end of the spectrum are college graduates -- including you, of course. You’ll be glad to know that college grads, over their lifetimes, on average earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than people who have only high-school diplomas. That’s according to just about everybody who’s looked into it, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- which in 2004 pegged the difference at $673,620.

Of course, “college graduates” is a broad category. One of the few things grads have in common is practice with language skills. (No matter what your major was, you needed to be able to write and talk about it to earn your degree.) So it stands to reason that language skills have something to do with college grads’ greater financial success. Whether they all become good writers is another question -- and unfortunately, not all do. But at least they’ve had four more years to practice, with instructors to help them.

From major employers’ point of view, even college graduates could stand further improvement. Last year a survey asked 100 human-resources executives, “What skills do entry level job seekers lack the most?” Nearly half of them said, “Writing skills.” I suspect that what these executives had in mind wasn’t simply spelling, punctuation and the other particulars to which I devote so much ink in this column. Those are just the secret handshakes that identify you as a member of the club that cares about language. Full membership involves a good deal more. Writing skills, at the higher level, include thinking clearly and being able to organize your thoughts so that others can understand them. The same goes for speaking skills.

So, Isaac, don’t give up hope. Yes, there are people in good jobs who can’t spell, but they got their positions in spite of that, not because of it. Besides, spelling is just the beginning of it. Probably not everyone who can think straight can write well. But anybody who can write truly well is able to think straight -- and that’s one of the most valuable skills of all.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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