Proofreading: The Forgotten Writing Tool
Has Proofreading Gone Out of Style?
Over the decades, I have lost count of how many well-intentioned articles I've read purporting to give people advice on various kinds of writing.
These run the gamut of advice on writing everything from term papers to press releases, inquiry letters and resumes.
To a person, they all emphasize careful writing, proper formatting, spelling and grammar. It boggles my mind that each and every one of these bits of "advice" I've ever read have contained at least one, often several, of the very errors against which the writer cautions.
It becomes obvious that careful proofreading was not done once they completed writing their 'advice on writing.'
It would greatly benefit anyone seeking to instruct and educate on matters of writing to be very sure that their own writing is without fault: otherwise, all credibility is lost.
Achieving correct spelling is, to be sure, a hornet's nest in the English language. I've written several articles about the various pitfalls. Suffice it to say here, however, that spell check is not equal to 'word check.'
You, the writer, may have selected the proper-sounding word, but used an incorrect homophone of a pair of same or similar-sounding words. This is a context error, not a true spelling error, and spell-check programs will not flag it.
Have no doubt: it is still an error, and one that will be noticed by the very folks you are trying to impress! Therefore, a physical proofreading must be done prior to publication.
Common culprits in this problem include use of their (possessive) instead of they're (contraction of 'they are'), or worse yet, there (indicating location).
Your (possessive) instead of you're (contraction of 'you are') is another often confused pair.
Any writer trying to make the point that careful and correct writing is imperative fails miserably if their own advice is fraught with those same errors!
I've seen errors of punctuation as well, and the most common is misplacement of the apostrophe. This mistake has to do with the difference between plurals and the possessive case.
A recent one I saw was someone referring to "..camera's" (sic*). In the context in which the word was used, the person was obviously referring to more than one camera, generically, without reference to the scene at which the cameras were aimed.
Therefore, "cameras" with no apostrophe would have been the correct (plural) usage. "Camera's" as used, would have referred instead to the possesive of a single camera, as in, "The camera's viewpoint."
Plurals do not take apostrophes; possessives do.
(The confounded 'exception to the rule' for apostrophes is that annoying case of "it's" vs. "its." Here, the possessive does not get the apostrophe, and the one that does is the contraction for "it is.")
The comma is another tripping point, for its use (or misuse), can drastically alter the very meaning of the sentence. The oft-cited example:
"Let's eat Grandma!" vs. "Let's eat, Grandma!"
In the first example, the writer is threatening cannibalism! The second is the correct usage, and is merely an invitation to Grandma to enjoy a meal.
*sic--Abbreviation from the Latin "sicut" meaning 'just as'
--indicating an error is a direct quotation of an unconventional phrase or incorrect spelling, and used intentionally.
Singular or Plural Possessive?
Another tricky apostrophe stumbling block is the difference between singular and plural possession cases.
In the case of more than one entity, the apostrophe follows the ending 's' that creates the plural form, i.e., "...the dogs' leashes.." more than one dog; more than one leash; each belonging to a different dog in the group = plural possessive.
Conversely, if there is only one dog, "..the dog's leash..." one dog, one leash, = singular possessive.
I've covered this in greater depth in my article on punctuation.
My Personal Pet Peeve
For my final comment, I will address my pet peeve: people who do not (or will not) seem to understand the difference between "then" and "than."
I'd be quite wealthy by now if I had a dollar for each time I saw this pair misused on a daily basis!
Come on, folks...it's really quite simple!
Then is a reference to time: "We will finish the laundry, then we will have lunch."
Than is a matter of comparison: "I would rather have chocolate ice cream than strawberry ice cream."
A Useful Tip
If at all possible, have another person proofread for you. Your brain knows what you meant, and it is virtually guaranteed that your eyes will register what your brain meant, and the error will still be missed in your own re-read.
I am not immune. I've had more than a few typos slip past. I find it helpful to print out a hard copy. With paper in hand and pencil at the ready, I am more likely to spot such goofs than I am while viewing the computer screen.
If you don't have an available second pair of eyes to help you, and if time is on your side, it is also helpful to just set the piece aside for a week or so. Then, when you come back to read it fresh, you will more likely spot those pesky mistakes.
© 2010 Liz Elias