A recent survey from Match.com reported that while 71% of the 5,000 single respondents were judging potential dates on their teeth, 69% were fretting about their grammar. Dating or not, your punctuation and grammar can invite a positive or negative first impression, especially when it comes to presenting your CV.
Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors can send your CV straight to the bin, so if you want that job, you have to get it right. It’s not enough to rely on the spelling and grammar check in Microsoft Word; you need to be 100% confident that your spelling, punctuation, and grammar makes the grade. So, let’s explore some of the key punctuation and grammar rules and how they work in the context of your CV.
Punctuation brings order to our words, helping the reader to decipher our intended meaning. Imagine a CV with no punctuation to show where sentences begin, end, pause, or change track. It would be an incoherent mess. Saying that, over-punctuating a CV can deliver the same result. This guidance should help you to punctuate your words effectively so that your CV is clear and easy to read.
Full stops are used to mark the end of a sentence. On your CV, you can use full stops at the end of sentences in your Profile. Some people like to use full stops at the end of their bullets under Experience; however, I prefer to leave them open. Also, I wouldn’t bother using full stops after brief bits of information in your Key Skills, Education, or Additional Information sections, for example.
When it comes to full stops, there are two distinct schools of thought – put a one-character space after the full stop, or add two. A recent article on the Cult of Pedagogy website explained why two spaces after a full stop used to be the norm but are no longer best practice. Believe it or not, adding two spaces after a full stop may lead the person reading your CV to make assumptions about your age (apparently nothing says over 40 like two spaces!).
Some people like to add full stops after each initial of an acronym, e.g. Management Information (M.I.). I prefer to present the acronym without full stops, e.g. Management Information (MI), as it looks cleaner. The only exception would be if the job advert requested a qualification or skill set listed as an acronym with full stops, e.g., M.B.A. In this case, I’d recommend presenting the term in the same way on your CV to make it through any automated sift. In this case, present acronyms in a consistent way throughout your CV.
The comma is used to separate items in a list or to separate clauses within a sentence. That’s simple enough. However, before writing your CV, you’ll need to decide whether you will adopt the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. Those who favour the Oxford comma will add a final comma before the word ‘and’ to separate items in a list, to clarify their meaning. I love to eat jelly, ice cream, sweets and bacon could read that the individual enjoys sweets and bacon together. Using the Oxford comma clarifies that these are separate items: I love to eat jelly, ice cream, sweets, and bacon. Whether you decide to adopt the Oxford comma or not, be sure to use commas consistently on your CV.
Colons can be used to introduce an explanation or a list e.g. IT Skills: Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint; Sage Line 50; Adobe Photoshop.
Colons can also be used to link two related clauses, with the second clause explaining the first. Here, it can be used in place of a semi-colon.
A semi-colon can be used to join two distinct yet related main clauses, each of which can stand alone as a sentence in its own right. Semi-colons apply when a full stop is overkill, but a simple comma is too light to separate the two parts of your sentence. The semi-colon can be used in place of and. Here’s an example:
Trebled number of graduate hires in 2009; developed and retained talent by implementing structured and progressive training programmes.
Semi-colons can also be used to make sense of complex lists, where commas separate grouped items, such as the eggs in this sentence:
The breakfast choices included sausages; bacon; beans; poached, fried, and scrambled eggs; mushrooms; and toast.
Semi-colons can be a grey area, so if you do use them on your CV, use them confidently and accurately, or not at all.
Hyphens connect two words together to make a new word. They can be used in compound adjectives that modify a noun, as in results-focused manager.
Hyphens are also useful when you are using two adjectives to describe the same base word e.g. short- and long-term projects.
Apostrophes can be used to indicate ownership (e.g. Jane’s CV) or to replace omitted letters in a word (e.g. it’s instead of it is or I’d instead or I would).
The misused apostrophe is one of the most prevalent CV errors, with job hunters often confusing its (belonging to it) and it’s (replacing it is), or adding an unnecessary apostrophe at the end of a plural word.
An unnecessary or missing apostrophe could indicate slack attention to detail or a poor grasp of punctuation, so it’s worth checking and triple checking before hitting the send button.
Brackets can indicate additional information which, if left out, leaves a grammatically complete sentence. In the context of a CV, brackets are most often used with acronyms.
When using acronyms, explain them in full first e.g. Management Information (MI), including the abbreviation in brackets after the name. Following this, you can confidently abbreviate all subsequent mentions. I’d only bother using brackets in this way if the term appears frequently in your CV. If not, just use the term without the acronyms.
Slashes, also referred to as forward slashes, can be used in the abbreviated versions of words like without (w/o) or care of (c/o). No space is required before or after the slash.
Slashes can also be used in an either/or scenario, where the reader can choose between the two presented words. For example, I’d like a burger and/or sausage. Again, no space is required before or after the slash.
However, on a CV, a slash is sometimes used between two important terms, such as job titles (e.g. business analyst/project manager). Unfortunately, CV screening technology can’t always read and interpret the terms separated by the slash (e.g. analyst/project) as two words. In this case, it’s best to add a space before and after the forward slash.
Once again, consistency is key, so adopt the same rule for all slashes on your CV.
The words you use on your CV can dramatically impact how you are perceived, so select and use them with care. Here are some word classes that merit particular attention when writing your CV:
Common and proper nouns
Proper nouns name specific people, places, or things e.g. Susan, Kent, Bosch, and do need a capital letter.
Common nouns identify people, places, or things e.g. women, cities, boxes. They are not specific and do not need to be capitalised.
On CVs, I often see inconsistent and incorrect capitalisation of common nouns. Candidates will capitalise words they consider important, and this can be distracting. Also, capitalised words are harder to read than lower case, as they break the reader’s flow. If in doubt, use an online tool like Grammarly to check your use of capitals.
One area that often causes confusion when it comes to capitalisation is job titles. Many people capitalise job titles on their CV. In fact, you only need to capitalise job titles that are used as part of a name, positioned directly before or directly after the subject’s name. So, you’d write Professor Plum or Harold Plum, Professor as a title, but when noting a job title without a name, lower case is fine. For example, you can use lower case for the job titles of your direct reports, e.g. Led a team of 15 business analysts.
Pick a style and use it consistently throughout your CV. The exception to this would be in your CV section headings or job role headings under Experience, where you can capitalise each word, or use uppercase for the whole title as a formatting tactic to draw the reader’s attention.
Verbs are used to describe an action, state, or feeling, and can add real oomph to your CV. Use action verbs to convey what you did and what happened, showing yourself as the main protagonist in your career stories, rather than a passive observer. Here are a few examples in action:
- Accelerated revenue growth by 50% in 12 months by segmenting target markets
- Advanced relationships with 3 top-tier prospects, positioning Company A for contracts valued at £15m
- Attracted graduate talent to grow this new team to 20 members in 2 years
- Boosted team morale through new meetings and training opportunities, with 93% of staff giving positive feedback
- Carved out a £2k saving on travel by sourcing a local conference venue
- Doubled the oil and gas client portfolio in 6 months by generating and pursuing 150 leads
- Exceeded annual sales target by 13%, recognised within the top 5% of sales staff globally
- Generated a £5m sales pipeline through online and offline networking
- Influenced board members to trial a new mentoring system, resulting in retention and promotion of 3 graduate recruits
- Retained a portfolio of 11 key clients over 5 years, growing average account revenue by 30%
Aim to uplevel your choice of verbs as you progress through your career, relegating words like managed or led to junior roles, and saving more descriptive and powerful verbs for current and recent positions.
Adverbs are used to describe the verb. They usually end in ly e.g. expertly managed, effortlessly led. When it comes to writing your CV, your aim is to convey your message in as few words as possible, so that your reader isn’t disheartened by lengthy bullets or large blocks of text. Adverbs are ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘need to have’, and don’t usually make the edit. Aim for adverb-free brevity.
Personal pronouns reference specific people or things (I, me, mine, you, yours, his, he, her, she, it, we, they, them) and can replace a noun.
Using personal pronouns on a CV is a matter of personal choice. The CV is obviously about you, as your name is there at the top, so this eliminates the need for personal pronouns. However, personal pronouns can be used in the CV Profile: I have 10 years’ experience… I am a PRINCE2 project manager, etc.
Third person pronouns in their full form are a definite no-no for your CV. Writing he is an exceptional manager, for example, would make you seem self-important and raise eyebrows. Instead, many people prefer to omit the pronoun but continues in the first person narrative. For example, in your profile, you could describe yourself as follows: A PRINCE2 project manager with 10 years’ retail and logistics experience. To make life easier, start off by drafting the Profile in the first person narrative, then eliminate all pronouns for a snappier read.
Adjectives are used to describe nouns e.g. challenging project, flagship store, telling you more about that noun. On a CV, adjectives can be used sparingly, but their use should be challenged to ensure the CV is as easy and quick to read as it possibly can be.
Articles (a, an, the) are used before nouns to clarify if the noun is specific (the team, the award) or unspecific (a team, an award). In any case, they add little in the context of a CV. Tighten up your CV content by eliminating articles where possible.
Homophones are words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings. Examples include: their, they’re, and there; your and you’re; hear and here; brake and break; complement and compliment; dual and duel; principal and principle; and stationary and stationery.
Be wary of homophones on your CV, as using the wrong word can make you seem slapdash and indicate you lack attention to detail.
While handy for picking up obvious errors, the spellchecker will skip straight past homophones. It won’t sea how grate you’re spelling misdemeanours are on you’re knew CV – all it will sea is that you’ve spelled every word write.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to write your CV, put it to one side overnight and read it again with fresh eyes, preferably aloud. You are more likely to see incorrect homophones and hear when a passage is clumsy or hard to read. Enlisting the help of a third party or using an online tool like Grammarly to check your CV is also a good idea.
Something that people do a lot, when writing, is accidentally switch between tenses in the same sentence. Tenses need to be used consistently on your CV, don’t muddle them. Read each sentence aloud as it will be much easier to spot a switch in tense.
Listing your results and achievements in the past tense can be more dynamic, so we typically use the past tense in Experience section bullets, even within your current employment section. Your Profile can be written in the present tense, as it describes your offering to your target employer, outlining how you can help by using your specific skills and experience.
Usually, the numbers one to ten should be written in word format, with numbers over ten written as figures. However, the two formats should not be mixed. On a CV, it can look cleaner to use figures rather than words for all numbers.
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