How Do You Define Good English?

Today we’re going to analyze three sentences you might hear at a job interview. Are they written in good English – or bad English? (I want to give credit to James Harbeck for some of these ideas.)

  1.  I think you’ll be a good fit in our department.

  2.  Your skill set is compatible with the rest of our team.

  3.  You’ll be an enjoyable person to work with.

This is a good test of how much of a stickler you are! I would rate myself high on a Cranky English Teacher scale. But – surprisingly – I would accept all three sentences as written.

1.  I think you’ll be a good fit in our department.

This sentence might bother some sticklers because it uses a personal verb (think) and a contraction (you’ll). In business writing you might want to speak for the whole department or the whole company rather than yourself. And if you’re writing formally, you’d probably insert that: “I think that you’ll be a good fit in our department.” 

But in a conversation in a job interview, I think the sentence is fine.

2. Your skill set is compatible with the rest of our team.

A stickler would revise the sentence with “that of”: “Your skill set is compatible with that of the rest of our team.”

But I refuse to use that of. Ever. (So sue me!) Again – the sticklers have a point. The original sentence is comparing a set of skills with a group of people. Inserting “that of” makes the sentence tidier and more logical.

I would argue that English was never meant to be tidy and logical. Inserting that of makes the sentence sound stiff and unnatural. The meaning of the sentence is perfectly clear. Why gum it up with that of?

3.  You’ll be an enjoyable person to work with.

A stickler might be unhappy about using “with” at the end of the sentence (even though there’s no rule against doing that). You can revise it to avoid the issue: You’ll be an enjoyable person with whom to work. But to me that revision sounds stiff and unnatural.

Before I finish, I’m going to offer one more version:

4. I’ve expressed to the department that the advantage of working with you will be considerable for us.

My immediate reaction to this sentence is – GACK. If you know anyone who writes this way, please do them (and all of us!) a favor: straighten them out. I beg you.

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The point today is that good English seems easy to define when you’re an English teacher talking to a class of wiggling fifth-graders. But in the workplace – or your own creative writing – it may not be simple at all.

All of us need to be aware of the rules that shape our writing. Are they outdated? Are they still doing the job for us? Where did they come from? Was it a credible source? Most important – do we understand the importance of varying our writing practices as we go from one setting to the next?

Good questions all!

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