On academic performance measures and job application forms


Now that it’s almost graduation time and job-hunting time for new college graduates, I’d like to take up three very timely grammar questions raised in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently about academic performance and job application and testing forms.

The first question is from Michelle V. who posted this question in the Forum’s Facebook gateway: “Here in my new school, they keep on saying ‘with highest honors.’ Is this correct? I believe this must be ‘with the highest honors.’”

I replied to Michelle: “The precise phrasing is actually ‘with highest honors,’ which is English for the Latin term summa cum laude. In comparison, ‘with high honors’ is magna cum laude, and ‘with honors,’ cum laude. In this context, the phrasing ‘with the highest honors’—made emphatic by the definite article ‘the’—doesn’t correspond to a specific honor level and rather sounds like a gratuitous stretch, perhaps even a boastful exaggeration.”

The second question is from Forum member Justine Aragones: “Is it necessary to put  this declaration at the tail end of a résumé: ‘I hereby certify that the above information is true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief”?

I replied to Justine: “The language of that statement smacks of legalese, and no level-minded job seeker really would speak or write that way, but it serves the purpose of making the job application a sworn statement. That, of course, warms the cockles of legal-minded recruiters and personnel officers, who need some form of assurance that the applicant at least isn’t making blatant lies in his or her curriculum vitae.”

Lest it be misconstrued that I’m being facetious, I’d like to add a postscript as to how that statement, shorn of legalese, might sound like an authentic educated job-seeker speaking in plain and simple English: “I affirm that this résumé is true and correct.”

And the third question is from Forum member Instant Researcher: “Could you please enlighten me about the correct usage of the prepositions ‘in’ and ‘on’ especially in giving test directions? ‘Write your answer (in, on) the blank.’ ‘Write your answer (in, on) the space provided.’ ‘Fill (in, on) the blank.’”

I replied to Instant Researcher: “The sentences you provided involve prepositions for indicating place and location on test material, which could be printed on a sheet of paper, written on a board or chart, or displayed on a computer screen. The general rule for preposition usage in such situations is ‘in’ for an enclosed space, ‘on’ for a surface, and ‘at’ for a point.

“A ‘blank,’ in whatever medium is being used, is an empty surface, so ‘on’ is the correct preposition for Sentence 1: ‘Write your answer on the blank.’

“A ‘space’ allotted for answers to a particular test item is normally enclosed by the test item before it and the test item after it, so ‘in’ is the correct preposition for Sentence 2: ‘Write your answer in the space provided.’

“Sentence 3 is, in practice, an exception to the general rule for the use of ‘in’ and ‘on.’ The context here is that the word ‘blank’ consists of a set of spaces for the entry of data, in contrast to the sense of ‘blank’ in Sentence 1 as simply empty surface. For the verb ‘fill,’ native English speakers idiomatically use ‘in’ to form the prepositional phrase ‘fill in’ in this particular instance: ‘Fill in the blank.’ (‘Fill on the blank’ is frowned upon as unidiomatic, and so with ‘Fill up the blank.’)

“The three particular usages I presented above use the American English Standard; there may be notable variations in the British English Standard. Also, we need to be aware that whatever English standard is used, preposition usage is essentially conventional, even quirkish at times, and that many preposition choices actually have no inherent or discernible logic of their own.”

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.



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