Sonal Shah warns of the perils of over-reliance on built-in spelling and language checkers if you want to get ahead in the jobs market
There have been various articles in the press on how poor spelling and grammar can affect one's career prospects. A poorly written CV or report could affect how one is perceived as a professional. Language errors can distract readers from the effort put into one's writing.
Creating a good first impression is essential, particularly when applying for jobs, notably graduate vacancies where CVs and application forms constitute the first hurdle. Well written job applications can greatly enhance the likelihood of being selected for interviews. On the other hand, shoddy and sloppy writing does not inspire confidence; it appears clumsy, unprofessional and rushed.
Whilst advances in technology have greatly facilitated the ways in which we communicate, they have also led us to become more complacent. We increasingly rely on built-in dictionaries and language checkers on our computers and mobile phones, expecting these to correct our mistakes. Auto-correct options lead to greater chances of failing to spot our typed entries being automatically changed, sometimes erroneously altering the intended meaning.
In a previous instalment of this column, we looked at errors concerning homophones (http://www.theactuary.com/archive/articles/elegant-english3a-sounds-familiar/) and how these do not necessarily get caught by spelling checkers. We looked at examples such as: discrete/discreet, principal/principle, compliment/complement, etc. This article considers other typing errors that also do not necessarily get detected by built-in checkers.
There is an anecdote about an American lawyer whose overzealous reliance on a spelling checker caused a replacement of the words 'sua sponte' (a Latin phrase for "on its own motion") with the words 'sea sponge' throughout his brief that was sent to court, thus one of his sentences read: "It is well settled that a trial court must instruct sea sponge on any defense " The embarrassed lawyer informed the court that the mis-spelling was due to a "glitch" and instructed that "where the phrase 'sea sponge' is found, this court should insert the phrase 'sua sponte'."
Note the American spelling 'defense' as used by the lawyer; the British spelling is 'defence'. Other spelling differences between American English and British English include modeled/modelled, judgment/judgement and parameterize/parameterise, with the second words in the pairs being British English. It is useful to be aware of the audience and to recognise inconsistencies in spellings within a document as some checkers switch between languages.
Unfortunately, a vicious circle has emerged, whereby over-reliance on technology, mounting complacency and laziness, and reducing language ability influence one another. Analogous to the decline in mental arithmetic since calculators became ubiquitous, orthography skills have declined since the advent of electronic typing devices with built-in language checkers.
Expecting language checkers to pick up all spelling mistakes is imprudent; when the mistake is still a valid word, it rarely gets caught by the checkers. Spelling mistakes are due to a combination of reasons: the proximity of keys in the layout of keyboards, leading to errors around extra, omitted or scrambled letters; carelessness and haste; and confusion or ignorance over the meanings and spellings of words. Here are some examples:
- A CV claiming the skill of playing attention to detail would benefit from the author paying more attention to proofreading skills.
- A daft presentation is perhaps best kept to oneself; a draft one may be shared with others.
- A job application stating claims handling experience would be more attractive to an insurance company than one stating clams handling, unless handling molluscs is desirable.
- An accepted claim may be expected, though it differs from an excepted claim.
- A list of models and risks differs from a lust of models and risks.
- Post-meeting action points are rather different to post-meeting pints.
- Reports by skilled persons should be taken seriously; reports claimed to be written by killed persons should be taken even more seriously.
These examples illustrate the importance of checking one's work. A job application or CV that is poorly written could compromise the candidate's application. The quality and sophistication of one's capital modelling work may not be evident in the modelling documentation if inadequately and inaccurately articulated.
We, as actuaries, are aware of the need to recognise the weaknesses and limitations of IT models and appreciate the importance of validating modelled outputs. Similarly, we need to understand the limitations of built-in dictionaries and language checkers, making us more vigilant in questioning whether typed outputs and checkers' suggestions fairly reflect what we wish to express. Even though technology keeps improving, there are limits to its capability. There is no foolproof algorithm to check for all language errors as the English language cannot be expressed by a fixed set of rules.
Using the analogy of Solvency II model validation, language checkers should be used in conjunction with proofreading (sense-checking), consulting independent dictionaries where relevant (benchmarking), questioning indicated errors and suggested changes (expert judgement and getting the document reviewed (expert judgement/independent validation).
In The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde, Lady Bracknell reproaches, "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Paraphrasing this to suit the theme of this article gives: "The occasional typing mistake may be regarded as unfortunate; several would look like carelessness."
Sonal Shah is a general insurance actuary currently working as an independent consultant on Solvency II Documentation