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Formal Language vs. Readability in Resumes

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Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I just read a SHRM article about resume writing and headlines. We own an engineering recruiting company and work a lot with resumes. I have researched the topic of the use of "&" quite recently and found that it is not advised to use it in any formal writing, including resumes. So, I was surprised when I noticed it in the sample headlines in the article. I would really appreciate your thoughts on this.

An excellent question that raises a challenging issue. You are correct: No editors or grammarians endorse the use of an "&" in a formal document. But I sometimes do use an ampersand in resumes. There are accepted rules for clear written communication in formal documents, and a resume is a formal document. But few things are black and white; most are shades of gray. Language evolves to suit the needs of the time and the medium of communication, and resumes have been impacted mightily by both.

The Customer Is Always Right

A resume is one of the most financially important documents most people will ever own. Your resume must work in the medium in which it is now most used—the Internet. Resumes that are not formatted well and that bury important information are doomed. If you have ever had to spend the morning reading resumes, you'll understand why headhunters, corporate recruiters and hiring managers dread the task of reading them; all they want are the relevant facts, communicated as efficiently as possible.

The main job of the resume is to be an effective sales tool, one that lands interviews and supports the skills you have and the assertions you make about your experience and capabilities. This has led to the evolution of a few communication rules unique to resumes' function and their audience's needs.

Give the Customers What They Need

For example, resume writers have largely dropped the use of personal pronouns, because it would lead to:

"I am responsible for …"

"She was responsible for …"

Besides sounding less boastful, not using the personal pronoun shortens and adds urgency to a sentence.

It also saves between five and nine spaces. Likewise, shortening "and" with "&" saves two spaces on the page. 

Those aren't a lot of spaces in and of themselves, but, cumulatively, such space-saving resume-writing tricks (like limiting paragraphs to a maximum of seven lines) can make a huge difference to the visual impact of the document. That extra white space makes reading easier for the customer.

In a resume, information is king, and maximizing visual accessibility trumps all other considerations. Hope this helps.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions, is available at the SHRMStore. Order your copy today!


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