Petit nègre

Petite annonce mal écriteThis note turned up in our mailbox last week, along with the usual jumble of ads from takeaways and real estate agents. (The latter despite the ‘pas de publicité’ injunction displayed loud and clear above our names.)

I was horrified. Not just by the lack of spelling and grammar but by the fact that someone might think that this is the way to find a job.

What does it say about the candidate?

  1. She’s a ‘young’ female student, 21 years old (Questionable, but you don’t technically become an ‘étudiante’ in France until university)
  2. French is not her first language (and clearly, she’s not a language student)
  3. She’s willing to do household labor during the month of August

Those are the facts. But to me it also says that this young woman has no sense of presentation, and presumably doesn’t care about detail. Not exactly the ideal candidate, even for house cleaning.

The ad reminded me of the importance of presenting oneself professionally at all times, no matter what your level on the job ladder. It also spoke to how very French I’ve become in my attitudes towards language. To be able to express oneself correctly in simple written French seems to me the absolute minimum prerequisite for a job in this country.

My French wasn’t that great, either, when I first put together my résumé and started knocking on doors. All the more reason to make sure my CV contained no spelling or grammar mistakes. Okay, I had a little help from husband. But these days, anyone with access to a computer can use spell check.

There is a proverb in French that says: “Les paroles s’envolent, les écrits restent.” Meaning that while the spoken word vanishes into thin air, anything you put in writing has a way of sticking around. It’s one thing to make mistakes when you speak French – that’s understandable for any non-native. A mistake in writing is far more shocking.

There’s also an expression to describe someone who speaks or writes in pidgin English. It’s called petit nègre, and it’s also a kind of creole from the French colonies.

Here is a corrected version of the ad text. Compare the original and see how many mistakes you can find:

“Jeune étudiante, 21 ans, cherche travail pour le mois d’août, repassage, ménage, baby-sitter.”

I count at least 8.

How about you? Would you hire this person? Do spelling mistakes and typos matter to you? Or is literacy over-rated?


  1. cheergerm · August 21, 2014

    Whilst I may take great advantage of the English language when writing my blog and will happily invent words or phrases for my own enjoyment as well as enjoying the vernacular and peculiar turns of phrases, it is a very different thing when applying for work or writing technically. I am far less accepting in those situations.

    • MELewis · August 22, 2014

      It’s a double standard, but I’m with you!

  2. davidprosser · August 21, 2014

    If I were thinking of hiring a baby sitter( my baby is 36 and never behaves herself) and I was presented that ad by a student I’d wonder if she ever paid attention in class. I don’t parlez Francais but I have a computer and it’s likely she has access to one.too. An English student wanting a month in France isn’t likely to get it this way.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · August 21, 2014

      Could not agree more, David. I would not entrust my pet, never mind my child, to anyone so careless. Even Google translate could have done a better job! Merci et big bises XX

  3. jackiemallon · August 21, 2014

    I used to be relatively attentive to other people’s spelling but didn’t really pass judgement. I think it’s like maths–something you’re either naturally good at or not. I’m terrible at maths so I can empathize with people who can’t sound out words and make a confident stab at their spelling. I still can’t grasp long division! (I probably shouldn’t spread that around.)
    Now, married to a copy editor and proof reader who is unable to switch off from his day job, I am hypercritical as a result.
    “June” would not get employment from me, malheureusement :-). She could have passed her ad onto someone else to check it for her if she had no access to a computer.

    • MELewis · August 22, 2014

      Exactly. Where there’s a will and all that… I’m also useless with numbers (although very good at spending money.) Hubby does the accounting, dieu soit loué!

  4. Osyth · August 22, 2014

    No hiree here that’s for sure. I arrived in France late last September and have spent 7 of the last 11 months here. And I live most of the time on my own as my husband toils (!) in Hawaii and Boston and makes trips to Greenland and most other points of the globe so the opportunity to speak in French are limited to shopping and niceties with neighbours. But to write so poorly and expect a job … Jose there is no way. Back of the class girlie and write your lines over and over until people will take you seriously. Only an opinion but unswervable and with so much competition for jobs I fear she will be barefoot and eating fridge crumbs with that advertisement!

    • MELewis · August 22, 2014

      Sadly, we live in an area where it’s hard to find home help and I fear that someone less demanding will snap her up despite the grammar challenges! We have several neighbours in your shoes – husbands always travelling, non-French speakers who are often on their own. Hopefully you enjoy the solitude – I know I do. But if you’re looking to speak more French, you should sign up for an ‘activité’ of some kind in September. I actually joined the village choir a few years back and it was a wonderful way to get to know the locals!

  5. wanderingcows · August 22, 2014

    I get cranky about grammar & spelling, so I’m on your side !

    • MELewis · August 22, 2014

      Grammar geeks, unite! 🙂

  6. jetgirlcos · August 22, 2014

    I wouldn’t hire her. I have a prejudice against poor language usage. That being said, I realize that I leave a lot of uncorrected errors on my site in French. In a way, I look at them as a record of my progress. But you’d better believe that I’d have a professor look over any document I wrote in French if I intended to use it to find a job!!

    • MELewis · August 22, 2014

      I think I also tend to over-compensate for my poor French – but it’s paid off over time. No matter what your mother tongue, if you truly care about language, you will be well served. Merci!

  7. Bendilyn Bach · August 22, 2014

    Bonjour FranceSays, A French professor and grammar Nazi, I find it ironic that I take a slightly different position on the note. Perhaps it is my empathy for the challenges of learning a new tongue (as you can well relate). Then again, it might be my pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps upbringing that makes me appreciate those willing to knock on doors to find work. (This is not the mentality of the French people that I know.) Do we really need our cleaning lady to write a la Flaubert? Might someone who can’t conjugate verbs in the subjunctive still be able to love on our bebes? Mind you, I would certainly do a background check before hiring, but I would not be against contacting the young woman if I were looking for a go-getter willing to do what it takes pour gagner sa vie… even if only to pat her on the back and say “Bravo!”

    • MELewis · August 22, 2014

      Funnily enough, I edited out a paragraph from this post (for brevity, and to remain focused) in which I acknowledged the fact that this person had the chutzpah to get off her derrière and put the job ad out there – despite the lack of language skills. So I do see your point…although I still think spelling and grammar is probably a valid background check. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and looking forward to reading your blog!

      • Bendilyn Bach · August 22, 2014

        And I, yours. 🙂

  8. A year in Périgord · August 22, 2014

    Depends what the vacancy has been, but I have certainly rejected applications for writing or editing roles where there were mistakes in the covering letter or CV. Sorry, but I felt justified and would do it again today.

    • MELewis · August 23, 2014

      You are right to reject poorly written applications, especially for writing or editing jobs. It amazes me how frequently I find typos or spelling mistakes – even in books on writing!

      • A year in Périgord · August 23, 2014

        I stopped reading a book after about five pages last week. It had been self-published, seemingly by someone without access even to a basic spell-checker program. I just couldn’t look past the errors.

  9. Mélanie · August 28, 2014

    par déformation professionnells(sic!), les fautes d’orthographe m’agressent la rétine… 🙂 à propos, as-tu vu “ça”?… help! 🙂

    • MELewis · August 29, 2014

      Quelle honte! By the way, if you’re a grammar stickler like me, you should read a very funny book: ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ by Lynne Truss.

  10. ann bayliss tgrtranslation · February 14, 2019

    I think it’s a cultural thing. She might be good-humored, honest, nice, and energetic, just not attuned to grammar, and might never have met a grammar-nazi. Had a neighbor from Haiti who in 2017 did not have an e-mail, and did not spell well. But I would trust him with my life.

    • MELewis · February 14, 2019

      True enough. I tend to judge people on written skills rather harshly which is unfair as it often has little to do with the person and their character. A lesson to remember!

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