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Ireland's latest batch of graduates can't punctuate- but they're not the only ones

category national | education | opinion/analysis author Friday March 12, 2010 22:31author by Emily Smithauthor email emilysmith at eircom dot net Report this post to the editors

Articles about the shortcomings of recent graduates appeared in all of last weekend's papers. This is a response to those articles from one of those illiterate graduates.

I sat my leaving cert in 2004 and was conferred with my degree in 2008 which makes me part of a generation that, according to Google’s John Herlihy, have severe literacy problems. I’m not about to argue with this assessment- it hasn’t escaped my attention that the majority of my peers do not have a grasp of basic grammar. When I was at college a couple of lecturers took my class to task for the number of grammatical errors we were making in written assignments, and quite rightly so- we were the students of an Honours degree in English. These tutors weren’t lecturers at one of Ireland’s top universities but employees of a lowly IT.
Human Resources consultant Rowan Manahan, who like Herlihy spoke to the media about receiving error-ridden CVs, told the Irish Independent’s Kim Bielenberg that when he was hired by a law firm to go through 1,100 CVs he could not find one without a mistake:
“This means that our leading universities must tolerate poor spelling and grammar.”

However, as a job-seeking graduate I know that there is more to this story than college leavers who don’t read enough books because it is also very rare to come across an advertisement for a job that doesn’t contain an error. I regularly browse through the classifieds pages of several different newspapers as well as Irish recruitment websites and many of the advertisements I see are punctuated incorrectly. On one occasion, frustrated that I was receiving nothing but rejection letters when responding to badly written ads, I decided to correct an ad, while at the same time begging for a job. The ad specified that the job would be suitable for ‘candidate’s’ with good proof-reading skills. I decided to prove my skills by informing my prospective employers that they were, in fact, just seeking ‘candidates’. I was rewarded with a job interview and met with an awestruck recruitment consultant who was delighted to have found someone who could tell her where to stick her apostrophes, “because even I wouldn’t know that”.
It turned out that despite receiving both a second and third level education my most laudable skill was something that had been drummed into me in primary school.
I have been asked, by former employers, to write letters or news on the business which they would then read and adapt as required. Sometimes mistakes were added.

It has occurred to me, during my long job-hunt, that there may be a problem with my own CV. I was tempted to look for professional help with it but the expert offering help with ‘CV’s’ through columns and ads in my (already frequently grammatically incorrect) local paper seemed to have so many problems articulating her own skills that I dismissed the idea.

It’s not just in the classifieds section that Ireland’s growing literacy problems shine through. In particular the mastery of apostrophes seems to be out of reach for many- they are being misused in newspapers, magazines, advertisements, CD covers, and the list goes on. Meanwhile the rise of meaningless phrases such as ‘going forward’ and ‘executive’ everything means that a coherent sentence is hard to come by on a recruitment website.

As Professor Colum Kenny pointed out in the Sunday Independent even Batt O’Keefe is described as the Minister “of education” on his department’s website.
Yes, Ireland’s recent graduates have a problem with the English language, but it seems they’re far from being alone.

author by Mark Cpublication date Fri Mar 12, 2010 23:02Report this post to the editors


I congratulate you on a well phrased article, despite the odd punctuation error (your misuse of a hyphen for a dash, missing comma (here and there), and lapsed italics for the name of a newspaper).

I agree, however, with your overall summation - spelling, grammar, and punctuation is not just a problem amongst the newly graduated (or our secondary school students (or their parents (etc.)), but is something that could be improved upon right across the board.

I received an email recently from jobs.ie telling me that they offer a new 'CV review service'. Here is how I responded:

Hi 'Jobs.ie',

Thanks for the offer of rewriting my CV for me, but given the amount of punctuation mistakes in your email, I think I'd be better doing it myself.

If you'd like me to detail them for you (for a small fee) let me know - perhaps jobs.ie has a job for a proof-reader!

Mark Conroy MA PGDE,
Administrator, Contact.ie

My response to them didn't get me an interview, unlike your response about 'CV's' - so, well done to you on that one. I wish you all the best, also, in your hunt for a job.

Related Link: http://www.mhra.org.uk/Publications/Books/StyleGuide/do...shtml
author by joe the greengrocerpublication date Sat Mar 13, 2010 13:03Report this post to the editors

"I sat my leaving cert in 2004 and was conferred with my degree in 2008 which makes me part of a generation that, according to Google’s John Herlihy, have severe literacy problems."

Emily . That is rather embarrasing , you should check up on your own grammar before you criticise other people. Indymedia is a news site sometimes used by people who are not that good at punctuation ,spelling , grammar etc but who have something interesting to say that wouldn't get published in the mainstream media . The sort of insistence on good grammar coming from well-educated people like yourself and Mark C can come across as snooty and put people off who might have something important to say .

author by Emily Smithpublication date Mon Mar 15, 2010 15:19author email emilysmith at eircom dot netReport this post to the editors

Thanks for your comments. I did worry that in publishing an article about poor grammar I was leaving myself open to criticism of my own writing and punctuation and I accept that this article is not that well written and contains grammatical errors. I did originally have the newspaper title in italics but they got lost in the transition from Microsoft Word to Indymedia. From the outset I did include myself when I agreed that many recent graduates seem to have a problem stringing a grammatically correct sentence together.

I wouldn't wish to put anyone off contributing their opinions to Indymedia just because they can't punctuate that well - I can't punctuate very well but I still thought I had an important point to make - and I am not insisting on good grammar from everyone. I merely pointed out that I sometimes notice mistakes in places where they shouldn't be acceptable namely recruitment websites and in the printed media. Of course it's much easier to notice the mistakes of others than it is to notice your own.

My main point was supposed to be that, while graduates are making headlines because of their inability to write an error-free CV, there are also alot of badly written, badly punctuated job advertisements being posted on jobs websites and in newspapers by recruitment and human resources consultants and often these are the people who are in the position of judging graduates and other jobseekers. Perhaps I didn't stress that point enough but I am actually on the side of people who could be losing out on jobs because of these mistakes. What I am criticising is that there are people with good jobs whose writing skills are not being questioned because they are in a position of authority.

P.S Thanks for the style guide, I already have one but I haven't consulted it in a while.

author by Flexiblepublication date Mon Mar 15, 2010 15:54Report this post to the editors

Any old way will do.

To be understood is the main thing - everything else dont mean nothin.

author by V for vendettapublication date Mon Mar 15, 2010 18:39Report this post to the editors

The whole recruitment procedure is one sided, demeaning and rife with irony. Often a highly qualified person, having slaved away at some abstract topics and jumped through a series of hoops to make them highly focussed but very compliant for years in a college that discourages independence of thought, is then rejected for a menial trained monkey job by a person who cannot spell themselves and has half their IQ.
All this after being expected to turn up at their own expense having given away all their personal information to some stranger to be lost, stolen, misplaced, or stored and arbitrarily distributed in an insecure and identity theft prone manner. It's all pretty disgusting.
There was a film on film four last night called "import export" which summed up the whole demeaning process of trying to get work in a capitalist nightmare. At least with Slavery, in the book "roots", kunta kinte kept his identity as a warrior and also his dignity in the constant rejection of his slavery and slave masters. Today we are reduced to servile snivelling desperate creatures selling ourselves for less and less money and we have lost all of our self respect and dignity in the job search process. There has to be something better than this.

author by Shakespearepublication date Tue Mar 16, 2010 13:11Report this post to the editors

languages have always changed.

It's a sure sign that you are getting old when you start complaining about how youngsters speak or spell.

(Two hundred years ago they were called "youngkers" incidentally.)

It tool only four generations for old Norse to transmogrify into early Icelandic,Danish,Swedish, Norwegian and Faroese etc.

Older Vikings would certainly have noticed that the young ones in different areas spoke "Incorrect Norse.".

As for English...have you tried reading Geoffrey Chaucer lately?

This is a quotation,in ENGLISH, from his poem ,"The Summoner's Tale":

This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle
In spirit ones by a visioun;

Examine it closely and you will see that it really is English.

So is modern "Text Spelling".


author by Bamboopublication date Tue Mar 16, 2010 17:45Report this post to the editors

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss is a brilliant book. It's a laugh-out-loud discussion of punctuation. I can't help suggesting it here, it's a must read.

author by Shakespeare.publication date Tue Mar 16, 2010 19:16Report this post to the editors

The semicolon is one of the most feared objects in punctuation.

Almost nobody can understand how,why,where and when to use it.

There is an amusing lesson on the use of the semicolon at this link:


The colon can be equally mysterious; as this Wiki article proves:


(Easier to get a degree in Rocket Science if you ask me.)

author by joepublication date Tue Mar 16, 2010 21:13Report this post to the editors

I can understand how people like Emily and V for Vendetta must feel after studying three or four years for a degree and then not being able to find work. It’s got nothing to do with your level of literacy skills though. People with poor literacy skills got “good jobs” in the first place because of the booming economy. It’s the rotten economic situation that’s stopping the present batch of graduates from finding work. It’s not just something that is affecting graduates though. Go easy there with that stuff about the sniveling, servile trained monkeys.
The semi-colon seems to be on its way out if newspapers like the IT and Guardian are anything to go by. Good riddance as far as I’m concerned.

author by Shakespeare.publication date Wed Mar 17, 2010 06:18Report this post to the editors

The semicolon is alive and well and thriving in the world of computers.

The mathematical expression below is written in the "C++" computer language; it gives you the square root of the number 1024.

Note that there are five semicolons in the five lines of computer code:

double param, result;
param = 1024.0;
result = sqrt (param);
printf ("sqrt(%lf) = %lf\n", param, result );
return 0;

(Almost as elegant as my Sonnets methinks.)

author by joepublication date Wed Mar 17, 2010 12:52Report this post to the editors

You’re very welcome to them as St Patrick said to the Brits when he banished the snakes . I certainly won’t be starting up a branch of the Semi-colon Preservation Society around my way.

author by iosafpublication date Fri Mar 19, 2010 23:33Report this post to the editors

I delight in mis-spelling words and abusing grammatical rules for several reasons. I've lived more than a decade outside the English speaking world & as is natural my spoken English is now contaminated with expressions which seem more efficient. For example instead of saying there are five of us I'd prefer to say we are five (as an answer to a question in a restaurant). Through this last decade I've worked with English, as teacher, translator and interpreter. I've taught so many people to speak and write English as a foreign language. The writer Julian Barnes pointed out that it is odd to teach it as a foreign language and not simply as English. It's almost as if we start off the foreigner at a disadvantage. Every such hinderance serves our anglo-saxon neo-liberal capitalism well & the imperial ambitions of the USA, UK and Eire state are better served in international business when foreigners can't understand native English turns of phrase & almost to a general stereotype, the English speakers can't be arsed to learn foreign languages or simply slow down and speak their own language in a neutral "easy-to-understand way". It was Julian Barnes (in the same novel) who dwelled on the peculiarity of greengrocers' chalked offers in London. Apple's, Orange's &c. Each fruit and vegetable offered got its apostrophe.

I belong to a generation which went up for graduation and brain drain before the kiwi's mundanity in the larders of Europe. As I also belong to a generation for whom a quid was a punt or a pound sterling, a lot of money in those days too might I add. But the writer of this wonderful article belongs to a generation of Euros. Yes. Euros with an "s", not an apostrophe simply an "s". Yet from RTE down to the hedgerow the people of the Eire state even if they still quantify quids as countable & their forebears had no problem counting punts still refer to more than two hundred centimos as "euro".

well that's my halfpenny's worth of comment.

If people understand what you want to say then you're doing ok.

it's great to be literate as we all know in this age where more and more people can read and write and fewer (not less) people bother to finish a book.

a grammarian expounds
a grammarian expounds

author by joepublication date Sun Mar 21, 2010 14:21Report this post to the editors

That’s prexactly the way a fancy European plural should be pronounced .

The misuse of the apostrophe isn’t just a problem for London greengrocers .Exchequer Taxi’s has a whole fleet of cabs going around Dublin at the moment with its name spelt like that on all the roof signs . The idea that people would spend a load of euro advertising -in this case literally highlighting - the fact that they can’t spell their own company name properly is what makes it so sad and funny at the same time .
More about the greengrocer’s apostrophe here:

author by Shakespearepublication date Mon Mar 22, 2010 10:47Report this post to the editors

They are Dubliners Joe.

They probably made that mistake on their "taxi's" so that you would talk about them.

Sure wasn't it a Dub. who said:

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

And wasn't it another Dub. who drove a coach-and-four through punctuation when he wrote his book "Ulysses."

Another trip-wire with the apostrophe is the correct usage of the words "its" and "it's".

Keeps me awake at night worrying about it.

author by Wally Bpublication date Mon Mar 22, 2010 11:36Report this post to the editors

Language, like the society that produces and uses it, evolves. The same is true for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Another thing that changes from age to age is sentence structure and vocabulary. The English of Chaucer could be direct and earthy at times. In one of the Canterbury Tales we read the sentence, "They shall be shrined in a hogge's turd." (The Pardoner's Tale - note the two gs in the spelling of hog, and the correct use of the apostrophe.) In another tale turd is spelt turde. In the 18th century English prose was very Latinate with long sentences containing endless subclauses. High German prose was longwinded throughout the nineteenth century until post World War II novelists reacted to it by writing shorter and more direct sentences.

I'm a bit traditional about spelling and punctuation, so I oppose the greengrocer's apostrophe. I sometimes wonder, however, about the correct use of the apostrophe in proper names like James. De we write St. James' Hospice or St. James's Hospice or can we avoid incorrectness by simply writing the Hospice of St. James? Or is it a load of bourgeois obfuscation devised by Fowler and others in order to confuse the middle classes who managed to get to grammar schools before the British Education Act of 1944?

author by Shakespearepublication date Mon Mar 22, 2010 13:49Report this post to the editors

I made that very point in "Age Gap" if you scroll up the page Wally B.

Irish scholars of the 11th century had already lost the ability to easily understand the written Irish of the 7th century.
That is about the same time difference between the 21st century and Chaucer.
Modern English speakers have to decode Chaucer nowadays.

English people are already beginning to misunderstand my own Elizabethan language.
Much less Chaucer.
(Not understand Me!.....The Bard of Avon........Off with their heads I say!)

Other example:

The decryption of the ancient "Linear B" writing was a triumph of deduction.

Alice Kober deduced that the language written by the Minonan Civilisation on Crete may have been Greek that was so much older than the classical Greek it was unrecognisable.

She cracked Minoan script and could read it like a book.

author by joepublication date Tue Mar 23, 2010 14:56Report this post to the editors

I’d be more of a conventionalist than a traditionalist - I like tradition ,but wouldn’t like to force it on anybody else . Punctuation is conventional , an agreed set of rules to make understanding of a text easier . If the convention is to use an apostrophe ,I’ll use it ,but wouldn’t want to make a big fuss about it . So , If the word “you’re” for instance was to go Minoan ,I wouldn’t try to rescue it .

There’s a mention of the use of an apostrophe on words ending in “s” at the link I gave above , Wally.
“ A particularly annoying example is that of a famous London hospital; when I was very young and had been mildly naughty, my father, a true-bred Londoner, would jokingly offer me his clenched fists, naming one sudden death and the other St Thomas’s Hospital. It’s been called that for generations, the final s improving the flow of the name, but it is now officially run by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital NHS Trust.” http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/apostrophe.htm

To me “St James’s” sounds right , but not “ Irish Times’s”

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