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Job Candidates - When English is a Second Language

Newsletter • volume 2 • number 3

Most of us have either used or heard the informal expression, "go the whole nine yards." Many people associate it with football and assume it means "go the distance." But in fact, "go the whole nine yards" is an old sailing term that has nothing to do with sports.

The phrase originated centuries ago, in the days of three-masted sailing ships. In nautical terminology, a "yard" is a spar or mast, and fighting ships carried three sails per yard. When ships engaged in battle, they put up all their sails, or "went the whole nine yards." This made perfect sense in the 1500s, but without an explanation, the true meaning eludes most of us today.

More recently, "go the whole nine yards" has been used in the construction industry to mean a full truckload of cement, which is nine cubic yards. In this case, the term is unclear to almost everyone but construction workers.

Still, this phrase and others like it generally pose no problems for native speakers because we have common agreements about meaning. But what about people for whom English is a second language? What are they to make of idiomatic phrases and figures of speech? A non-native speaker can only throw up her hands and wonder where exactly does one go if one "goes the whole nine yards."

The point, for interviewers is to be careful about the use of idiomatic phrases, slang, or jargon when interviewing applicants who speak English as a second language. If a candidate looks puzzled or confused by something you have said, ask whether you have been understood, and if necessary, rephrase or explain your comments.