Professional Language: Sometimes it’s Hip to Be Square

professional languagePlenty of advice exists to help you write the perfect resume, cover letter, or other job search document. They’ll tell you what to put where and in what order. You can find a hundred articles to teach you all about keywords, experience sections, and achievement lists. This advice, if it’s solid, does give you a leg up on the competition. Professional writing, however, is about more than just using the proper format and pleasing the applicant tracking system. To truly stand above, you need to use professional language.

Language, like a living organism, evolves and grows. Just ask anyone who’s read Shakespeare. Over time, the way we communicate changes as new words and rules become acceptable and old forms fade away. For instance, you wouldn’t use “thee” and “thou” today. Colloquial, or casual, language changes rapidly as society and technology advances. Fads, slang, and convenience influence the way we talk to each other. Often, however, formal, professional language evolves more slowly.

Here are few things to consider when writing for your job search.

The Comma and the Dash

One trend in casual writing today involves using a dash wherever and whenever possible.  That’s fine. For many years, the dash virtually disappeared because it was used so infrequently. It’s nice to see the dash getting some love. Many people, however, seem to think that the dash and the comma are completely interchangeable. They are not.

While commas serve a multitude of functions in the English language, the dash serves one. You use a dash to introduce extra, defining information added to the sentence as an aside. Of course, a comma does this as well. The difference between the two is that a dash is a much stronger, more excited emphasis. You don’t want to use a dash for any of the other functions assigned to the comma, like connecting a compound sentence or setting off an introductory phrase. In fact, since the dash denotes extra emphasis, using it at all in formal, professional language often seems aggressive. Besides, it tends to make your page look broken up and disjointed.

Conjunction Junction

“And” and “but” are conjunctions. Their function (as we learned on Saturday mornings in the 70’s) is to join two independent clauses to form a compound sentence. They’re also used to denote items in a series. There is no acceptable reason in formal writing to use these words in any other way. It has become the fashion, in more casual, internet writing, to avoid long sentences by capitalizing a conjunction as the first word of a new sentence. That works on the internet, but it is neither formal nor professional language. If your thought requires a conjunction but you don’t want to write a compound sentence, think differently.

Font Tricks

When we speak, we tend to place emphasis on a particular word or phrase to create dramatic effect. When we write, we often try to emulate this by writing in ALL CAPS, Italics, or boldface. In reality, it

distracts the reader’s eye and clutters up the page. Let your writing stand on its own merits. If you’ve written well, your reader will understand.

No Thumbs

The ubiquitous nature of smart phones has created an entire generation of people who type faster with their thumbs than they do with all ten fingers. Such dexterity makes the instant communication of text messaging possible. The speed, however, comes from the use of shortcuts as well. Most shortcuts invalidate professional language. They make it look like you couldn’t be bothered. So, IMHO you shouldn’t use them b/c you wanna look like you care. See what I mean? Don’t even get me started on emoticons.

Save it for Social

Sometimes we don’t realize that we communicate differently when we’re doing different things. 20 years ago, slang, or street language, confused us. Today, we absorb the words and formats we read most often on social media. They become second nature. You have to learn to separate social media language from professional language. Believe it or not, words like “unfriend” and “selfie” don’t exist in formal writing and no one speaks in hashtags.

All job search writing, including resumes, cover letters, applications, follow-up emails, etc., requires professional language. Casual language can damage your credibility, particularly with more established companies. Language that comes naturally to you, may seem frivolous to the people doing the hiring.

So, take a step back and remember, in the case of formal, professional language, sometimes it’s hip to be square.

This post previously appeared on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s