Tips for Avoiding 4 Common Punctuation Errors on Resumes

Today is National Punctuation Day -- a special day that I celebrated earlier this week by baking punctuation cupcakes for my students and colleagues at Michigan State University.

My favorite cupcakes were the ones with the semicolons -- on vanilla frosting.

A lot of job applicants could help themselves out if they paid better attention to punctuation. Resumes are tricky because they are so heavily formatted with indents and boldface type that some of the usual rules for punctuation can be suspended on the resume.

Below, I've offered some advice related to the four most common punctuation errors that I see on resumes.

1. Commas: I tell students that if they would just learn to use the comma correctly, they could solve 80 percent of their punctuation problems. Apostrophes will take care of another 10 percent. The chief problem with commas on resumes is that Associated Press Style, which is used in most newsrooms, does not call for the serial comma that comes before the conjunction in a simple series. Using serial commas is a dead giveaway that the applicant is not very conversant with AP style -- despite the claim, elsewhere on the resume, that he or she is.

2. Dashes and hyphens: They are not the same, of course. Dashes separate items and hyphens join them. Many people use dashes and hyphens to introduce things on their resume. People are just stuck for what kind of punctuation to use and they land here. Really, they should use a colon instead. On sloppy resumes, people use hyphens and dashes incorrectly and interchangeably. Be correct and be consistent. In many cases, typographical tricks such as boldface type, indentation and capitalization set material off well enough to go without any kind of punctuation cues.

Semicolons: As I said before, I love the semicolon, when used correctly. But in talking to editors, I find that the semicolon is the second most hated piece of punctuation there is -- after the exclamation point. I don't know why this is. Some editors flat-out tell writers to never use it. I don't imagine they enjoy seeing it on a resume. I think this is because editors have seen the semicolon used incorrectly too many times. It might also be that some editors think the semicolon indicates a run-on sentence situation. My advice: avoid the semicolon, even if you know how to use it.

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Periods: Believe it or not, the simple period often gets misused on resumes. Of course, periods are good to put at the end of complete sentences. But many resumes include lines that are not sentences and that end in periods. That bugs me. It probably bugs the writer to have a string of words that ends without punctuation. The answer is to turn that line into a sentence.

Coming Monday: Sifting news stories for career clues.

Resume questions? E-mail Joe for an answer.

  • Joe Grimm

    Joe Grimm is a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He runs the JobsPage Website.


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