Nickers in a Not

Or… Stuff I’m sick of #1,874: writing covering letters.

I am still without a job. It’s tough out there! The last time there was a proper recession, I thought that kissing girls was a revolting idea, and that Def Leppard were wicked. Economic conditions aside, I am being selective about which jobs I apply for. As I am not facing imminent starvation, I have the luxury of carefully applying for jobs I want rather than carelessly applying for jobs I don’t.

This, for me, means spending a couple of hours researching the company I’m applying to, then spending a couple more hours writing a covering letter that corresponds with the impression I get of the company. I try to imagine the kind of person who will open my email, and tailor my prose accordingly.


‘I saw ur ad 4 a job and i want it, lol!!!’ might have cut it in the dot.com boom years, but in leaner times a carefully targeted introduction is called for. Covering letters are awful propositions. You must present yourself confidently without arrogance. You must sound professional, but not stuffy. You must be clear and concise, but not superficial. You must avoid cliché, but it is impractical not to draw upon a few stock phrases.

This is particularly difficult when you consider the subjectivity of these things. One man’s confidence is another man’s arrogance. One man’s brevity is another man’s reticence. But there is one important rule which applies to all covering letters, no matter who the intended audience: It must be grammatical.

Now, I am often told I write well. And I do. I drive well, too. But I don’t really know how an engine works. When I’ve finished a difficult sentence in a covering letter and read it back analytically, everything I thought I knew about my mother tongue goes out the window.

I was not taught formal grammar at school; I am of the generation that was expected to infer grammar from reading. The same goes for punctuation – have I used semicolons and dashes correctly in this paragraph? Are my tenses consistent? For me, it’s more a matter of instinct than reasoning.

English grammar is a hideous, repellant subject. I feel nauseous nauseated thinking about it. Should it be ‘The couple were drinking Martinis’, or ‘The couple was drinking Martinis’? Are you sure? Is it writer’s block, or writers’ block? If you have writer’s block, it’s just you. You are the writer with the block. But if all writers get writer’s block, then surely it’s writers’ block. Wait, writers writing together have writers’ block. Right? Where am I going wrong? Seriously, tell me!

Sometimes people screw up their faces when they hear Alan Sugar asking a potential apprentice, “Why wasn’t you out there selling?” when of course he should have asked, “Why WEREN’T you out there selling?”. But wait! ‘I was’, ‘He was’, ‘She was’, so why not ‘You was’, if speaking of a singular ‘you’? It doesn’t make sense! There is no explanation. Well, there IS an explanation, but it requires so many technical terms as to make it nonsensical to a layman. And I always say, if you can’t explain the gist of something without using jargon, it’s probably bollocks.

Some people gasp with horror when they realise most people don’t know the difference between a verb and a noun. ‘A Verb is a doing word; a noun a naming word,’ they tell you. But what about this?

(i) I am suffering terribly.
(ii) My suffering is terrible.

In the first example, ‘suffering’ is a verb; in the second, a noun. But the information conveyed is identical! Do my skills match with the job description, or are they a perfect match for it? A man could go mad thinking about it / thinking of it / thinking on it.

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10 Responses to Nickers in a Not

  1. McKinley says:

    Just get a fucking job already.

  2. ben says:

    I think you meant ‘nauseated’, as nauseous would imply that you were responsible for the nausea, rather than the grammar.

    sorry if i just made you vomit in your mouth.

  3. alison says:

    ‘I saw ur ad 4 a job and i want it, lol!!!’ might have cut it in the dot.com boom years

    Incorrect. The extra comma before the ‘lol’ would have marked you out as a total ponce.

  4. Amardeep says:

    Grammar is there for a reason. Alan sugar’s mangling of the language is terrible. It makes him sound like a dumb twat. I cant really say i am the best person to speak about this but it does wind me up. Maybe i watch too many interviews with illiterate footballers.

    Also, are you sure “suffering” is a noun in the second sentence? I’m not so sure. I could be wrong though making my comments in the first paragraph void.

    I’m exhausted now. Bollocks to this!

  5. Amardeep says:

    See, the grammar in my last post was terrible. I chat shit innit!!!!

  6. mieke says:

    i’m foreign! i get to rape and pillage your language all i want! ha!

    also, language isn’t static, it changes over time and that’s fine.

  7. recoder says:

    McK, that’s a temporal impossibility. Ben, thanks. Alison, lol. Amardeep, suffering is definitely a noun in the second sentence: I stole the example from a Bill Bryson book, and if Bill Bryson’s wrong, I don’t want to know what’s right. Mieke, you have an advantage speaking two languages fluently as your brain has more linguistic connections, or something.

  8. pete485 says:

    Grammar is a bag of arse, and no mistake.

    If it sounds and feels right, whilst conveying information clearly then, as far as I’m concerned, it is.

  9. recoder says:

    I intend to dig out ‘Mother Tongue’ by Bill Bryson; it’s (of course) very funny, but also a surgical strike on pseudo grammarians, the people who make self-righteous and often frenzied assaults on split infinitives and suchlike.

  10. mieke says:

    The best part is I learned it all from TV. Suck on that!

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