Spelling errors: an insurmountable barrier to employment?


On October 25, a spelling refresher company published an Ipsos survey on employers’ expectations with regard to employee skills. The questions were oriented towards the importance given to the mastery of the French language in a professional context. And unsurprisingly , employers say they are very sensitive to the issue of spelling both at the time of recruitment and with regard to the professional activity of employees. Other studies had already shown it, so this only confirms what we already knew.

However, when you take a closer look, the content of the questions questions. In addition to the fact that the study overestimates the demand for certification from employers (who, in 4 out of 5 cases, did not know of any before responding to the survey), it includes formulations mixing the quality of expression (oral or written) and spelling. In detail, having a good spelling comes 10% below a good quality of oral and written expression in the context of a recruitment (69% against 59%). But spelling, grammar or conjugation errors in a CV or cover letter rise to 83% as crippling criteria for further recruitment.

In summary, on reading the results, we can draw two lessons:

  • spelling is not clearly distinct from other skills associated with mastery of the French language;
  • its importance fluctuates according to the wording of the question (between 59% and 83%).

Where do the spelling difficulties come from?

The impact of spelling on social and professional (even romantic ) life is well known. With the exponential increase in electronic exchanges (SMS, emails, social networks), we now live in a written society. There has never been a period in the history of mankind when so many human beings read and write, which we can only rejoice.

Mastering the rules of spelling and grammar is therefore a major issue, but these changes also raise the question of the validity of these rules. Linguists have been warning about the learning difficulties caused by the absence of spelling reforms for more than a century. It is necessary to hunt for exceptions so that the system is more regular and accessible to as many people as possible. Moreover, Maurice Druon, Permanent Secretary of the French Academy, wrote in his presentation of the 1990 rectifications  :

“[The rectifications] eliminate the main difficulties which are without justification, and normalize most of the anomalies. “

Then he added:
“The language being a living thing, we will have to start work again in thirty years, if not even before. “
A significant delay has therefore been taken and this may explain, at least in part, the current difficulties . For the record, between 1694 and 1798, there were 5 editions of the Dictionary of the French Academy with regular changes in spelling. But since 1798 (a period of more than two centuries), there have only been 3 and the fourth is being drafted.

In addition, in the 1740 edition, one in four words had their spelling corrected. And it is often ignored that the word “poetry” was written “poetry” until 1798 but that it was not until 1878 that poetry was written as a poem. As for “nuptials”, it was written “nopces” because this word comes from the Latin “nuptiae”. This allows to relativize the movement of defense of the circumflex accent or the etymology.

Spelling represents a convention that must be developed towards more regularity. For French, it has been about two centuries that our spelling has stagnated and that, at the same time, we deplore an insufficient mastery, without ever making any link between the two.

The spelling mistake

When we say that 83% of recruiters consider spelling, grammar and conjugation errors as prohibitive, we must measure the drama that this represents. The level is not miraculously going to increase in the years to come. And this for a very simple reason: the further we move away from the time when orthographic forms were fixed, the more difficult it will be for students to appropriate them, the language continuing to evolve.

To improve the situation, we must begin by correcting the anomalies that have accumulated over time in order to make spelling, grammar and conjugation teachable. Maurice Druon said so himself.

Spelling certification programs are an answer to business needs, but they are unlikely to be a robust solution . Especially since to our knowledge, the rare scientific studies on the subject show only a slight positive effect on the level of learners.

One of them shows that in a CM2 class, the students who used the Voltaire Project went from an average of 16.4 errors to 13.05 in the context of a dictation comprising 62 words. In the class not using the Voltaire Project, the students go from 17.1 errors to 14.65. The improvement observed is therefore not spectacular.

By refusing to consider that the problem could come from the spelling itself, the sorting will continue to take place between those who will have the means to train (with results which decline despite everything) and the greatest number who will be condemned to exclusion. All the more so if spelling continues to be of such importance in society.

Author Bio: Christophe Benzitoun is a Senior Lecturer in French Linguistics at the University of Lorraine