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Six ways in which the proofreader trumps the spellchecker



However accomplished we are as writers, we are all at the mercy of our brain’s effort to make sense of what it’s reading. The more we read something, the harder it can be to step back and spot errors or omissions. But it’s ok – that’s what the spellchecker is for, isn’t it? But what if the spellchecker misses it, too…


The worst cases are where a mistake is made that doesn’t change the grammatical function of the rogue word – but does change the sense.


Here are some of the more common pitfalls, along with some tips to help you.


1. Missing letters, words or more

The brain is incredibly good at filling in the blanks to make sense of what it is reading: it knows what to expect and it can be difficult to shake this off and get a fresh perspective.


Missing letters can lead to embarrassment (e.g. public/pubic, brought/bought, prostrate/prostate, changing/hanging).


Missing words can make a critical difference (touch the wire/don’t touch the wire). This week, I have seen an advert for an ‘obligation quote’ (which I hope is a ‘no-obligation quote’).


Missing sections are surprisingly common, especially if text has been copied and pasted from another document.


Graphics can get missed if they are going to be included at the last minute and are forgotten.


Missing or broken links are a frequent problem due to the ever-changing web-based landscape.


Top Tips · Check that negatives are present – these can have legal and health-and-safety implications.

· Identify words that you use frequently that could lead to embarrassing slips and check them.

· If there is a missing full stop, question mark or exclamation mark, ask yourself why – is some text missing?

· Is there a reference to an appendix? Check that it is included.

· Does your copy refer to an image, table or graph – is it there?

· Click on all of your links before publishing your copy and ensure that you have scheduled routine checks. Alternatively, reduce the number of links that you include or refer to information by way of a static reference.


2. Missing punctuation: commas and possessive apostrophes

The comma has the power to change the sense dramatically and its omission can lead to misunderstandings and expensive legal cases.


For example, ‘Bob pushed James and Nadia then ran for help’. Without a comma, we do not know whether Bob pushed James and Nadia, or just James. We do not know who ran for help – was it Bob or Nadia? If we add the comma, it becomes clear: ‘Bob pushed James, and Nadia then ran for help’.


Watch out for the omission of the possessive apostrophe and make it clear whether you are referring to one or many of something, e.g. the client’s wishes (one client)/the clients’ wishes (all of the clients).

Top Tips

· Take particular care where you are writing something that could be relied upon in the future, e.g. board minutes, telephone case notes, witness statements, policies, terms and conditions, and all legal documents.

· Check your lists (in text and bullet points) and add the Oxford comma (before ‘and’ or ‘or’) for clarity where necessary.


3. Missing hyphens and automated hyphens

The spellchecker will not pick up ambiguity unless there is a grammatical error. You may have spelled everything correctly but, like the comma, the hyphen adds clarity.


For example:

Fifty odd delegates attended the conference.

Fifty-odd delegates attended the conference.


Were the delegates odd? Or did around fifty delegates attend? (You can imagine the social media uproar.)


If your text is justified (i.e. stretched across the whole page rather than aligned) the software will hyphenate long words to avoid a gap. This can sometimes result in an unwelcome change of sense, which is unlikely to be picked up by your spellchecker (unless you have tailored your software to avoid word breaks). For example, break words like ‘therapist’ to read ‘ther-apist’ or ‘therap-ist’.


Top Tips

· Check multiple words before a noun – are they modifying the noun or each other? Hyphenate for sense.

· Is your text justified? Check for software-generated word breaks down the right-hand side of the page. Are they all broken between syllables and do they still make sense?


4. Transposed letters and capital letters

Typos that create other words (with different meanings) are easy to overlook, e.g. from/form, quite/quiet, lots/lost, unclear/nuclear, bar/bra. Words in capital letters, such as titles, in-table text and capital letters used to add emphasis often get missed by the brain and the spellchecker.


Top Tips

· Check that your software’s dictionary is set to review words in capital letters.

· Take a break and come back to your text with fresh eyes.

· Read it aloud slowly to aid concentration and to get a different perspective.


5. Forms of English and variant spellings (e.g. ‘ise’ and ‘ize’ endings)

This is more about consistency than error, but it can look like a mistake. Some words will be spelled differently depending on the form of English adopted: for example, ‘grey’ in UK English is ‘gray’ in US English. If your software’s dictionary is set to your preferred version of English, you should be fine. However, the ‘ize’ ending, although predominantly associated with the USA, has become accepted in UK English and it is possible to use ‘surprise’ and ‘surprize’ in the same sentence without alerting your spellchecker. Your copy still makes sense, but your reader may notice the inconsistency.


Consider other words where you could use either form (e.g. focused/focussed, online/on-line, cooperate/co-operate, reenact/re-enact and spelled/spelt) and decide which one to adopt.


Top Tips

· Check that your software’s dictionary is set to your preferred form of English.

· Create a Style Sheet (list of conventions) to record your preferences. This helps you to be consistent across your content, engenders trust from your readers and helps to create a smooth reading experience.


6. Words that sound the same (homophones) or similar but have different meanings

These can be easy to miss.


For example:

The house is well appointed with complimentary lighting./The house is well appointed with complementary lighting.


Is the lighting free, good at giving praise or does it suit the well-appointed house?


Look out for principal/principle, bored/board, band/banned, past/passed, throne/thrown, counsellor/councillor, site/sight, stationery/stationary, aloud/allowed and incidence/incidents.


There are also words that people frequently misuse when they are speaking but get away with because they sound similar to the intended word, e.g. bought/brought, perspective/prospective.


Top Tips

· Identify words that you use frequently that could lead to embarrassing slips and check them.

· If you are not sure, use an online dictionary (in your chosen form of English) to check.

· Add them to your Style Sheet for future reference.


This is not an exhaustive list, but it does highlight a few of the dangers of leaving proofreading to the spellchecker (and grammarchecker) and could save you time and costs in the long run. If in doubt, follow the tips above and approach a proofreader for help – unless, of course, you are in the market for ‘typosquatting’ (but that’s one for another blog).


Isobel Kent is an Oxfordshire-based proofreader and school governors’ clerk and specialises in proofreading for business, community projects and musicians. She trained with the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and the Publishing Training Centre and holds a BA (Hons) in Music from the University of York.

Previously, she was a school librarian, a paralegal and a personal assistant to directors in a blue-chip company, a pub company and a global DC-power company. She also studied with renowned violinist and co-founder of the Purcell School, Rosemary Rapaport.

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