Definition of Proofreading
Proofreading is the process of carefully reviewing a text for errors, especially surface errors such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and typing errors.
Proofreading vs. Editing
While the terms proofreading and editing are often used interchangeably, they do differ slightly.
Editing is typically completed throughout the writing process—especially between drafts—and often suggests contextual changes that affect the overall meaning and presentation. The focus is on changes that affect style, point-of-view, organization of content, audience, etc.
Proofreading occurs later in the writing process, usually just after the final editing and before the final draft that will be presented for publication (or turned in to a professor). The focus is on correcting errors in spelling, syntax, grammar, punctuation, and formatting.
While some editing will inevitably be done during the proofreading process and vice versa—the writing process is not perfectly linear, after all—focusing on proofreading too early in the writing process is often inefficient because with each revision new errors are introduced. In other words, one does not want to spend a lot of time correcting sentences and paragraphs that may soon be rewritten or even deleted completely.
Examples of Common Errors
While many types of errors exist in writing, there are some that are more common and definitely more noticeable. Some of these errors include spelling, capitalization, punctuation, grammar, subject\verb agreement, and word usage.
A word processor's spell-checker will detect most spelling mistakes. However, if you are writing a paper out longhand, using a good college-edition dictionary can help you prevent many of these mistakes (unless of course, you also can't guess which letter begins the word). If you lack a spelling-bone (I think it's near the funny bone because it is another bone that hurts when it bumps against something), a good strategy to use is to keep a notebook of problem words. You can add words to it each time you have to look a word up in the dictionary, and eventually you will have your own mini-dictionary of words to check more closely. Some people still prefer to do the old grade-school thing and write the word out in longhand twelve times, sounding it out as you write. For example, surprise. Sounded out, it is sǔr (as in Big Sur in California) prise (where the i sounds like a French ee vowel sound, and you can picture yourself being surprised while sipping espresso on the Rive Gauche in Paris. The sound and the image combined may help you remember the spelling.
Punctuation errors most often involve the comma, which means knowing when and how to use one. Of course, that's easier said than done. The comma splice seems to be an especially common error among writers. A comma splice is defined as a sentence that contains two or more complete sentences joined together by a comma. American university professors tend to see it as a major mechanical error. Rumor has it that once in the distant past there was a university in Colorado where any paper with even a single comma splice would receive an automatic F with no exceptions allowed. Hopefully, no extreme cases like that exist now, but avoid comma splices if you're writing for an American audience. If you are in Great Britain, that's another story—comma splices are cheerfully ignored for the most part. Audience truly matters in writing, even on the grammatical/mechanical level.
Although some style guides list nearly two dozen comma rules, there are basically five comma rules you need to know:
1. Use a comma with a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses. In Layman's terms, fix a comma splice by adding one of the following: and, but, for, so, or, nor, or yet.
2. Use a comma to set off non-essential information in a sentence. Basically, put commas around extra information that is not part of the main idea.
3. Use a comma in lists or items in a series.
4. Use commas in addresses and dates.
5. Use a comma between adjectives if they make sense with the order reversed or with "and" inserted in between them.
The Wildcard Rule: There are always exceptions to the rules, and often it is just a matter of personal preference and style. Think about your purpose and your audience; then decide whether or not a comma makes the sentence clearer or is just an extra mark on the page. Sometimes having too many commas is a worse problem than not having enough commas.
Verb tense and subject/verb agreement are also key errors that should be looked for when proofreading a paper. The subject should always agree with the verb in tense and number. These verb issues are often overlooked or unnoticed while writing an initial draft but can usually be caught with a good proofread.
Methods on how to find these verb tense problems, among with other mistakes, will be discussed in the next section.
Strategies for Finding Errors
It's often difficult to find your own errors. In this section we will discuss how to look at your own work carefully to spot errors.
The first thing to do is to allow some time between writing and proofreading. Some people recommend letting a text set as long as two weeks before looking over it for mistakes, but that is usually not practical. Instead, try to give yourself at least one full day between finishing your draft and proofreading. In other words, sleep on it. If the deadline is quickly approaching or it is due the next morning, take as much time as you can--an hour or two will do wonders. At minimum, try to take at least take fifteen minutes after the completion of the paper before going back and proofreading. This allows you to look at the same piece of work with a clear eye and a fresh mind.
Second, the paper should be read aloud. Can you make it through without stumbling over anything? Many grammar or word usage errors are not picked up on until the piece is read aloud. Also, have someone else read your work for you (aloud, if possible, so you can hear where the words or punctuation are leading the reader away from your intended meaning). A peer or family member with some distance can also let you know if the progression of the paper needs help, or if something doesn't quite make sense. Do not be afraid to strike out a passage that you thought sounded great, but others are having a hard time understanding.
You can also read the work backwards, one sentence at a time. This helps determine if each sentence, independent of anything else, makes sense. Ask yourself these questions: Are the sentences complete? Does each sentence have a subject (who or what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what's happening in the sentence)? Note which ones need to be changed and why.
Finally, get help! If you're not sure about something, such as the use of a comma or spelling, find a resource or assistance. You can use the writing center at your school, a tutor, the internet, or something as convenient and portable as a grammar book or dictionary!
Common Errors and Correction Strategies
Don't forget to use your word processor's spell-check feature to identify spelling mistakes. Do a quick visual check for squiggly lines, run the actual spell-check function, and then do a closer check for misspellings or wrong word choices that the spell-checker missed. Although spell-checking is important and should not be skipped, a real-live human can often catch errors that computer software will miss because people are more capable of understanding words in context. For example, spell-check software can't always tell whether their, there, or they're fits in a specific sentence, but a person can always figure it out by looking at the definitions for these homonyms.
Don't forget the low-tech solution: always use a dictionary to confirm any word you're unsure about. Although the built-in dictionary that comes with your word processor is a great time-saver, it falls far short of a college-edition dictionary in paper or CD form. So, if spell-check suggests bizarre corrections for one of your words, it could be that you know a word it doesn't. When in doubt, check a dictionary to be sure.
This section will provide useful information on Standard American punctuation: its usage, pitfalls, etc.
By definition, a fragment is a group of words that is punctuated like a sentence, but that lacks either a subject or a verb. For example: "Full five year warranty and free oil changes!" People use fragments like this in advertisements all the time, but when you are writing for an academic audience, which is far less forgiving of purposeful fragments, your readers may assume that you just don't know the sentence is a fragment. They may conclude that if you got that wrong, you might be wrong about your content too.
So, how can you do find fragments in your own writing? First, find the main verb. Then, find the subject for that verb.
You could correct the example sentence in the following way:
- Original: Full five year warranty and free oil changes!
- Add verb: Receive a full five year warranty and free oil changes!
- Add subject and verb: New customers receive a full five year warranty and free oil changes!
Built-in grammar-checkers are fairly good at spotting fragments, but occasionally go overboard and mark a sentence as a fragment when it is not. Use your own judgment and read each one independently while asking the questions provided above.
Below are some examples of errors with subject/verb agreement. Take some time and see if you can figure out what the error is in these sentences.
Original: The dog need to go on a walk.
Revised: The dog needs to go on a walk.
--The subject in the original sentence (dog) is singular. The verb (need) is plural. The verb needs to be changed from plural to singular form in order to agree with the subject.
Original: Chris and Molly goes for walks often in the evening.
Revised: Chris and Molly go for walks often in the evening.
--In this case the verb started out as a singular form. It needed to be changed to plural to fit with Chris and Molly (plural subject).
A quick way to check for subject/verb agreement is to circle the verb and underline the subject of each sentence. Make sure that if the subject is plural, you use a plural form of the verb. If you can not identify subjects and verbs this method will not be practical, and you should seek guidance online, at your school's writing center, or from an instructor first.
One last source for finding tips on correcting common errors is online tutors and workshops. Use internet searches to help you with anything you might be struggling with!
If it feels like you keep repeating the same words throughout your writing, pull out a thesaurus for ideas on different, more creative choices. A thesaurus can add just enough color and depth to a piece that otherwise seems mundane. Be careful, though, that the word you substitute has the intended meaning. Thesauruses provide words with similar meanings, not identical meanings--so if you are unsure look up the new word in the dictionary!
Proofreading with a Word Processor
There are many word processing programs available, and probably the most popular and most commonly used one so far is Microsoft Word. However, with the advent of Microsoft Vista and the lack of easy back-compatibility between new Word and even past versions of Word (including Word from Office 2003), that may change and open source alternatives such as Open Office may gain popularity. That issue aside, one thing all word processors have in common is this: although a word processor is a great tool for writing and includes many special functions that can help a student check for errors such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, repeated words, formatting, and so on, it is not a perfect solution for all problems. When students write, they should be especially aware of the errors the software does not find. This can be a real problem when an assignment is graded for all aspects of the writing process. One of the biggest mistakes a student can make is thinking, "No problem, my word processor will catch all the mistakes for me."
There is no computer program written that can look at every word in context. As great as word processing software is, compared to the human mind it is still extremely limited when it comes to processing language. Even the simple task of spell-checking using a spell-checker tool is not error-free. Although it can find misspelled or unrecognized words, it cannot always differentiate between homonyms. For example, it does not always distinguish between the words to, too, or two. Another problem can arise if your word processor is not set up to correct a certain error. For instance, many spell-checkers are set by default to disregard words in all capital letters because many people do not want it to spell check acronyms. In this case, the word PROOFREEDING would not be caught as a misspelled word because it is in all capital letters.
Despite their many limitations, spelling and grammar-checkers, while not perfect, do help find common errors. However, the best tool that you can use to spot errors is your own eye. Spend the time to look over your writing carefully to make an honest attempt at turning in that elusive error-free paper, AKA by editors as clean copy.
In the earlier section about proofreading using a word processor, it was mentioned that although software can correct spelling errors or alert you to unrecognized words, it cannot distinguish between words that sound alike (homonyms). Take a look at the examples containing misspelled words below and see if you can find the wrong word in each sentence. Although there are no spelling mistakes, each sentence does contain a mistake in word usage.
- What will today's students listen to when they are in their 40s? Is disco music in there future as well?
- Coach Thompson's team won ten consecutive Big Twelve Conference crowns, and tied the NCAA record with nine consecutive NCAA champion from 1978-1986.
- Life experience sometimes plays an important roll in how and what a student may write about.
- During the parade, they band members marched in unison.
- Do you think computers have changed are everyday life?
- The store at the end of the block does not except checks any longer.
- One study showed that of the countries 250 million people, almost 10% still smoke.
- As evidence has shone, the crime rate in the city has dropped in the last decade.
- If writing is such an important part of the school curriculum, than why are so many students having problems with the essay assignment.
- I was raised in a home were rock and roll music was not allowed.
By understanding that proofreading requires a slow, deliberate analysis of what you have written, you will be able to recognize the trouble with the sentences above, and be better prepared to recognize the same type of problems in the future.
Corrections and commentary for the above examples
- What will today's students listen to when they are in their 40s? Is disco music in their future as well? "There" should be "their" because the second form shows possession. It is their future because it belongs to them.
- Coach Thompson's team won ten consecutive Big Twelve Conference crowns, and tied the NCAA record with nine consecutive NCAA championships from 1978-1986. "champion" should be "championships" because champions win championships. The former refers to the players, the latter to the titles they hold.
- Life experience sometimes plays an important role in how and what a student may write about. "Roll" should be "role." The first "roll" refers to the verb roll or the rolls you eat at Thanksgiving, someone's role is the part they play in something.
- During the parade, the band members marched in unison. "They" should be "the," and is a common typo--the type that suggests sloppiness on the part of the writer, nonetheless.
- Do you think computers have changed our everyday life? "Are" should be "our." Although some people pronounce them alike, "are" is a verb (a form of be) while "our" shows the possession of a group. (People are busy during the holidays. Our family still manages to get together.)
- The store at the end of the block does not accept checks any longer. "except" should be "accept." "Except" forms the base for the word "exception" and shares a similar meaning; "accept" forms the base for the word "acceptance" and shares a similar meaning.
- One study showed that of the country's 250 million people, almost 10% still smoke. "Countries" should be "country's." "Countries" is the plural form (i.e., more than one country); "country's" is the possessive form and shows that something belongs to the country.
- As evidence has shown, the crime rate in the city has dropped in the last decade. "shone" should be "shown." "Shone" is a form of the verb "shine," while "shown" is a form of the verb "show."
- If writing is such an important part of the school curriculum, then why are so many students having problems with the essay assignment? "Than" should be "then." "Than" shows relationship when comparing two things, while "then" shows a time relationship. Ex: First I went to the store. Then, I went home.
- I was raised in a home where rock and roll music was not allowed. "Were" should be "where." Were is a form of the verb "be," while "where" indicates a location or speech.