An Audible Literacy Filter

October 22, 2012

If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.

Especially among technical folks, writing is an underrated skill. Kyle Wiens hit the front page of Hacker News by blogging about his use of a writing test to screen engineering applicants; while I’m not completely convinced that “at its core, code is prose,” I do believe that facility with prose is both valuable in itself and a good proxy for attention to detail. Many authors have made the former point, often specifically addressing startups, and Kyle himself does an excellent job making the latter connection. However, not all of us are willing (or allowed) to administer a writing test as part of the interview process. For the rushed curmudgeon, I offer a shortcut: focus on the candidate’s use of the word “myself.”

An Easy, Audible Grammar Test

Many guides to grammar gaffes focus on homophones—pairs of words that have different meanings but identical pronunciations. But relying on homophones to sort the literate wheat from the unemployable chaff is difficult precisely because they sound alike; using homophones to detect your candidate’s illiteracy requires a written test. (The most obliging candidates display their ignorance in a resume or cover letter, but not everyone is so forthright.) Focusing on “myself” avoids this trap, since misuse is easily flagged in speech and in writing.

Like “whom,” “myself” is tricky because correct usage demands some knowledge of formal grammar. It’s only appropriate in two cases:

A good rule of thumb is to be suspicious of any sentence that includes “myself” but not “I.” Most importantly, “myself” is not just a fancy substitute for “me” or “I.” These are two incorrect, but sadly common, constructions:

And there you have it—a simple, audible grammar test. Its false-positive rate is low, and it’s particularly good at detecting the overly self-important candidate (or co-worker).