Category : Proofreading

photo of two editing books

Two tips to make your proofreading more effective

Recently, while attending a business breakfast organised by Fife Women in Business, I shared with fellow breakfasters a couple of tips for proofreading short documents more efficiently.

Afterwards, several people mentioned to me how useful they had found these tips, so I thought it would make sense to share them here on the blog in case others also find them helpful.

Read the text out loud

“I’ve already proofread this document five times. What difference could reading it out loud possibly make?” you may wonder. Prepare to be surprised. As powerful and clever as it is, our brain is not averse to playing the odd trick on us. Or rather our grey cells sometimes do their job too well and while we are reading, they automatically fill in any missing word they know should be there – even if we never actually wrote that word…

Quite apart from helping identify missing words, reading out loud gives us an opportunity to gauge the flow and – possibly even more importantly – the impact of our words. A turn of phrase that appears perfectly civil when one’s eye skims over it can come across quite differently when you actually ‘hear’. For example, it might sound more aggressive than you originally intended.

Begin at the end of the document and work backwards sentence by sentence

By reading the last sentence, then the penultimate sentence and so forth all the way back to the start of the document, you will stop your brain from going into automaton mode. This can happen all too easily, simply because it has already become familiar with reading the sentences in the correct order.

By disrupting the sentence order, you will make your brain work harder and focus better, so it’s less likely to skip over any typos, duplicated words or grammar gaffes. As a bonus, you’re also more likely to spot any missing full stops.

This advice is most applicable to short documents (up to, say, a couple of pages long). However, for practical reasons, it may not always be possible to read even a short document out loud. On such occasions, another skill is required: reading out loud “inside your head”.

This may sound a difficult skill to master, but you’d be amazed how easy it is and how effective it can be. Instead of just allowing your eyes to skim over the text as you normally would when reading silently, make yourself linger just a little longer on each word – pointing your finger at each word individually as you read it can make this easier – while in your head “hearing” that word read out loud.

Try these two techniques next time you’re proofreading an important email or letter and see if you spot anything you hadn’t noticed the first five times you read it!


You can tell an editor is ill when she mixes up her words…

getting your words right

During a recent consultation with our local GP, I accidentally mixed up the words “panacea” and “placebo” – which confirmed, in a way that nothing else could have, that I was not a well woman!

Joking apart though, it did give me the idea for a blog post that looked at a few oft-confused words, and my resolve was strengthened this evening when I saw the word “reign” instead of “rein” in an online article published by leading marketing journal The Drum.

Let’s look at “panacea” first – a Latin word, which was derived from Ancient Greek. Its original meaning was a remedy (in those days probably plant-based) which was able to cure all types of diseases, and even to prolong life.

Over time, the word also came to be used in a more general way to describe a solution or plan that would solve all problems, e.g. “The UN’s proposed scheme offered no panacea for the deep-rooted problems of poverty in the region, merely providing a basis for future discussions.”

Placebo is also a Latin word – a verb whose literal English translation is “I shall please”.  In medical terms, a placebo is a medicine or procedure with no therapeutic effect, which is prescribed purely for the psychological benefit of the patient rather than for any physiological effects. Often placebos are used as a control when testing new drugs, to ascertain whether the drug being tested has genuine therapeutic properties.

Two other words – homophones in this instance – which often cause a mix-up are “reign” and “rein”.  Now, if I had a fiver for every time I’ve spotted the phrase “to give free reign to…” in the UK press, you wouldn’t be reading this post. Why? Because I’d have already made my fortune and retired to the French Riviera, where I’d be happily sipping fresh orange juice and grenadine by the sea.

Perhaps my equestrian teenage years give me a certain advantage here, but the correct phrase is actually “to give free rein” to (no “g”, just a gee-gee!) and it means to loosen the reins, thereby allowing the horse to move as fast as it wishes.

Similarly, I often see the phrase “to reign in” written in articles (such as the one from The Drum, which I mentioned earlier). Here again, we’re dealing with an equestrian term – this time “rein in” (again without a “g”), which means to pull on the reins and cause the horse to slow down.

In other words, the only time you should use “reign” with a “g” is when you’re talking about the period of office of a monarch or other authority (“reign” – noun) or the act of being a monarch or in another position of authority (“to reign” – verb).

If you come across other examples of word confusion (perhaps with amusing consequences!), do post your suggestions on our Facebook page. We look forward to reading them soon! Meanwhile, try this very simple quiz featuring commonly confused words. Good luck…


A new addition vs a new edition

photo of ewe nuzzling new lamb

Put simply: one bleats and the other is published

When I’m wearing my private tutor’s hat, I always advise my pupils that if they hear a word they don’t know the meaning of three times within a week, it’s definitely time to look it up. My theory is that if they’ve heard a word that frequently, it could easily rise spectre-like from a Higher English close reading paper to haunt them.

Being a consistent soul, I feel duty-bound to extend my vocabulary rule of thumb to editing advice as well, and that’s what has prompted this quick “heads-up” post. The phrase I’ve seen used incorrectly three times in the past week is “a new edition to the family”, whereas what the writer almost certainly meant was “a new addition to the family” (i.e. a baby or a pet).

So I thought it might be helpful to clarify the difference between these two, albeit similar-sounding, words…

Addition (noun): The act or process of adding OR something that has been added to something else, e.g. The black  lamb was a new ADDITION to our flock.

Not to be confused with…

Edition (noun): a specific form or version of a published text, e.g. I prefer the previous EDITION of this book.

Dictionary in library

Spellcheckers – the proofreader’s friend or foe?

Find and replace editing icons

You may not be a trained writer, but you’ve still laboured valiantly to the end of a marathon 26-page marketing report for an important client – an epic feat of writing endeavour, which has caused you to sacrifice numerous social engagements (not to mention the odd rainforest…).

At this point, the perfect scenario would be for you to send your lovingly crafted document off to a professional proofreader or editor and await their corrected version, before firing it off through cyberspace to your client’s waiting inbox…

Realistically, however, companies may not have a budget for professional proofreading or editing, so it’s far more likely that you’ll skim through the document on screen (a method, by the way, that has been proven to be significantly less accurate) and then take a few minutes to run a final “spellcheck”.

At this point, you would be well advised to exercise more than a smidgen of caution. Spellcheckers are not always the most reliable of assistants, so it’s dangerous – verging on syntactically suicidal – to blithely “accept” every suggestion that your friendly spellchecker proffers.

Certain typos still count as recognised English words, which means they will not necessarily show up as errors. Let’s look at just a few examples:

  • Form – instead of “from”, or vice versa.
  • Out – instead of “our”, or vice versa.
  • Assess – instead of “access”, or vice versa.
  • Of – instead of “or”, or vice versa.
  • If – instead of “is”, or vice versa.
  • Lead – instead of “led” (the former is part of the present tense of the verb “to lead” or is a noun that denotes a heavy metal; the second is the past participle of the verb “to lead”, e.g. “I have led”).
  • Manger – instead of “manager”.
  • Change – instead of “chance”, or vice versa.

Likewise, never do a blanket “find and replace” unless you are 100% certain that there is no margin for error.

For example, if you want to change the word “rot” to “rota”, unless you ensured that you entered a space before and after “rot” in the “search” box, you could end up changing phrases such as “he wrote” and “it was a really grotty day” to “he wrotae” and “it was a really grotaty day.”

Similarly, if you want to change the word “son” to “daughter” and to apply this change blanket-fashion, watch out! This could lead to a phrase such as “his impersonations…” becoming “his imperdaughterations”…. Which is a very good reason indeed for remembering to run a “final final spellcheck after you’ve executed any “find and replace” operation. Of course, a spellchecker should then pick this up, but you don’t want to take any risks!

Another risk with a “blanket” find and replace comes if you’ve been writing about a company called “Derek Smith Limited” and you find that they’ve recently changed their name to “Derek Smith Incorporated”.

For reasons of speed, it might be tempting simply to search for the word Limited” and press “replace all” to substitute the word “Incorporated” with the word “Limited” in each instance.

However, somewhere in the text, the word “limited” might occur in a sentence such as “He agreed to try this for a limited period of time”. The result of a blanket substitution would then be the rather nonsensical “He agreed to try this for a incorporated period of time”…

Which brings me neatly to another point. If you are replacing a word that begins with a consonant by one that starts with a vowel, remember that before you search for the word “motor”, for example, with a view to changing it to “engine”, you need to search for any instances where the indefinite article is used before the word, i.e. “a motor” and change this to “an engine”.  Otherwise, if you simply dive in and change all instances of the word “motor” to “engine”, you could end up with “a engine” appearing in your text.

All these examples highlight the importance of reviewing substitutions one at a time. Use the humble “next” button and don’t be tempted by the speedy “replace all” approach.

Obviously, spellcheckers and find/replace tools do have their uses; however, it’s wise to bear in mind that while they are certainly very helpful when it comes to avoiding basic typos and for saving time, they are anything but foolproof!

Inglourious Grammar

Putting the fun into pedantry.

As any pedant will tell you, grammar is a serious business – and, though it pains me to say so, often viewed by others as a very dull business. In fact, the very mention of the word has the power to send the most severe insomniac straight to the Land of Nod. However, with a bit of creativity, there are always ways of livening up a potentially dreary subject, and the film makers at College Humor did precisely that a few years ago when they made a mini-spoof (a whole three minutes) based on the film Inglourious Basterds and featuring a “grammar Nazi”.

Without giving too much away, the punchline requires the viewer to be familiar with an issue of syntax (sentence structure) that catches out even the most experienced writers at times. So before you watch the film, here’s a quick heads-up on the dreaded “dangling participle…”

Normally we use an adjective to describe a noun or pronoun. For example, we say, “John is tired.” However, we also modify nouns using whole phrases, which we place before the said noun or pronoun, e.g. “Tired and footsore, John stumbled down the path.” This is correct, as the modifier describes the subject of the sentence, “John”. However, it would not be correct to say, “Tired and footsore, the path seemed to John to go on forever.” Here, the writer is saying that the path is tired and footsore, rather than John. In this case, the modifier is said to be “dangling” – hanging about at the start of the sentence, not quite sure where it fits in.

Here are another few examples of dangling modifiers, just to get your eye in…

“Barking and snarling, John was bitten by the dog.”

Now John might well have been snarling after the dog bit him, but the writer actually meant the modifier “barking and snarling” to apply to the dog and not John. Yet as the word “John” follows immediately after the modifier in this sentence, technically it applies to him.

“Laughing loudly, I could hear Jim at the other side of the room.”

Here, the writer wanted to imply that Jim was laughing so loudly that the speaker could hear him from the other side of the room. However, what he actually wrote implies that the speaker himself is doing the laughing, and not Jim, as the modifier “laughing loudly” is placed directly before the pronoun “I”.

OK, so now that you can spot a dangling modifier at 100 paces, enjoy the film!

Thanks to US outfit College Humor for this extremely creative grammar teaching tool!