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Proofreading Trouble Spots

This may be the most valuable section of the course for you, because here I'm going to tell you about all the situations that trip up even eagle-eyed, experienced proofreaders. The first trouble spot, and it's literally a big one, is headlines. You can find websites that collect all-time whopper mistakes in headlines, some of them extremely funny, such as "Missippi's Literacy Program Shows Improvement," "Disturbing Turnover in WCU's School of Pubic Affairs" and "Incestors Pleased With Stock Market Performance."

For some reason, whatever is in the largest sized type in our document or publication is hardest to proofread. Our eyes either skip over it altogether, or our mind perceives it as making the sense we expect to see there. In addition, headlines often get added or changed at the last minute, after the rest of the material has been proofread.

So always make a special point of proofreading headlines extremely carefully.

Captions for photos, illustrations, charts, or graphs are another common spot for screw-ups. While researching this course, I found, ironically accompanying an article about a massive proofreading flub involving Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, an illustration that's captioned War and Peace, but the Chapter 1 in the illustration is actually the opening chapter of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It shows Pride and Prejudice's famous opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." and the illustration also says Pride and Prejudice right there in the upper left corner, even though the caption says it's showing War and Peace. Proofread captions to make sure someone didn't inadvertently switch captions or say there's something in an illustration that, in fact, isn't there.

Next, URLs, phone numbers, and times. For URLs, you have to actually click them and make sure they go where your text intends them to go. For phone numbers, actually dial them, including the area code. I once printed up marketing postcards for a seminar I was running but hadn't yet mailed them when I realized I had mixed up our phone and fax numbers on the postcard. Back I went to the printer. That was an expensive mistake, but not as harmful as it would have been to have mailed out the postcards with the mixed-up numbers and then not gotten the response I expected. For times, double-check them and make sure you've correctly specified a.m. or p.m. – as well as the time zone if you are marketing nationally or internationally.

Proper names. For people's names, it's easy to start off correctly referring to, let's say, Adam Millman and then later in a piece referred to him as Adam Miller. First names may have many variants, and you need to get them right every time, like Bethanee, with two e's at the end instead of a y. If someone is named Macallister, is that MAC-Capital A, or MC-Capital A, or even MC-Capital C, Mc-Callister. That's where a style sheet, which I discussed in the previous lesson, can keep you on the up-and-up in your proofreading. For place names, it's common to get one element wrong, such as leaving off the apostrophe in Martha's Vineyard, adding an "h" to Rottenburg, or mangling various place names that come from Native American languages, like Loxahatchee or Keosauqua.

Here's a great story about the cost of not being careful when it comes to proper names. There is a beer called Allsopp's Arctic Ale, which is spelled (unintuitively) ALLSOPP'S. Someone listed an 1852 bottle of Allsopp's Arctic Ale on eBay as "Allsop's Arctic Ale," with only one "p." The winning bid was $304. The buyer had noticed the typo and relisted this antique item on eBay with the correct company spelling. With the correct spelling, it got picked up in online searches, and it quickly resold with a winning bid of more than half a million dollars.

Make sure you do not over-correct when you proofread. By that I mean, it's common for people to make assumptions about how something "should" be spelled and then make a correction in line with the assumption. For instance, everyone knows there's no "e" at the end of Smith, right? Wrong. It's rare, but Smithe with an "e" exists as a last name. Never assume. Always check.

Someone who was assigned to proofread the outdoor outfitter L.L Bean's printed catalog once "corrected" its reply phone number prefix from 877 to 800, because everyone knows a toll-free number starts with 800, right? Wrong. It should have been 877. In this case, L.L. Bean had to quickly negotiate with the company that owned that 800-number so they wouldn't lose all the phone orders in response to that catalog.

Next, let's talk about easily confused characters. The three examples of this that you should be aware of are possible confusions first, between the numeral zero and the letter O, and second, between the numeral 1 and the letter l. In Times Roman, the font I used when I typed the script of this course, they look almost exactly the same, but they don't behave exactly the same. Then third, in some other fonts, the numeral 1 and the capital letter I look exactly the same.

The numeral zero normally has an oval shape, while the letter O, whether upper or lower case, is round. These are easy for a writer to confuse, first because many of us pronounce a zero in our minds as "O" and second, because the two elements are very near each other on a standard keyboard. Familiarize yourself with how the two look in the font in which you're proofreading so you can pick out a mistake.

Now to the numeral 1 vs. the letter l and the numeral 1 vs. the capital letter I. If these look exactly the same in some fonts, why would you want to be conscious of possible confusion between them? There are two reasons. First, both in the production process and after publication for online texts, fonts often get changed. If you proofread in one font, a designer can come along and, with only one simple command, change your copy from one font to another. You don't want it to turn into nonsense. The same goes for when someone copies and pastes your document from online into a word processing program (let's suppose that's for legitimate reasons, not to plagiarize you!) and the font changes. You don't want it to become incoherent and wrong in spots.

Secondly, and more likely to become a real-world issue, sometimes you think you are seeing a letter 1 in your source material, but it's really a numeral 1, or you confuse a 1 and a capital I. For example, consider these three expressions: AI (the abbreviation for artificial intelligence), Al (the shortened form of the name Alan or Albert), and A1 (without the hyphen, which might be all or part of a company name). In certain fonts, these look the same or almost the same. I was once doing research on company names, and in the list of Inc. 500 companies, there was one name that in the font used looked completely preposterous until I realized that it consisted of numeral 1 between some other letters, not an l or an I. This may not come up often, but it did trip me up once.

You may need to be aware of key differences between British and American English, especially if you run a blog contributed to by people around the world or you're publishing an anthology with contributions from folks in different parts of the world. British spelling and punctuation conventions are often followed not only within the UK but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India, as well as by others in Europe or elsewhere who were trained in English by teachers from those countries. Here I am not talking so much about word differences, like "lift" vs. "elevator" or "chemist" vs. "drugstore," but more subtle differences that would affect your proofreading.

First, know whether you're expected to adhere to British or American conventions. Normally an entire website or a single book should be one or the other, not a mishmash of both. If you're based in the US, use the American conventions. If you're based in one of the Commonwealth countries, you might use the British conventions, but maybe not if a huge majority of your readers or visitors were from the US. That's a judgment call.

What are the differences I'm talking about? In British punctuation, regular quotations use single quotation marks, while quotes within quotes use double quotation marks, which is the reverse of American usage. In British punctuation, commas and periods go outside of quotation marks. Titles like "Mr" and "Dr" do not take a period in British usage. Dates are written with the day of the month first, then the month, then the year, as in "6 September 2021," rather than "September 6, 2021, which is the American style."

And finally, in British English, collective nouns like "company" or "team" may take a plural verb rather than a singular one, as in "The company use yellow for warnings" and "The team are showing their skill today." If you're proofreading someone who gives you something with these patterns, it's important to know that they're not uneducated or careless. Just determine whether you're supposed to use American or British conventions, and be consistent.

Speaking of quotation marks, while proofreading, it's part of your job to be sure that every spot that has an open quote also has a corresponding close quote. Ditto for parentheses. Numbering needs to be consistent and complete as well. By that, I mean that if the text says, "There are seven reasons that we should support this bill," then there had better be seven reasons, not six or eight. If you're numbering chapters, you'd better not skip from Chapter 3 to Chapter 5 or have two Chapter 17's. Those types of mistakes are much more common than you might guess.

Another all too common tripup is where there's a very familiar sequence of words. Because you know which words come after one another, your eyes easily skip over that sequence, and you may not notice that it's not quite right. As I explained earlier, the very project of proofreading requires you to use special methods to see what's on the page (or the screen) instead of what your mind expects. Well, there is a very famous Bible printed in 1635 that's called the Sinner's Bible because it printed the seventh commandment as "Thou shalt commit adultery." Likewise, one publisher printed the most well-known soliloquy in all of Shakespeare as "To be or to be; that is the question." That little word "not" had better be there when it's supposed to be there!

And when it comes to common idiomatic phrases, they're very commonly mangled. Did you know, for instance, that "for all intensive purposes" is actually supposed to be "for all intents and purposes"? That "case and point" is correctly written as "case in point"? If not, you'd better look up all such expressions to find the correct version. Likewise, there are a host of easily confused words, and if you're not 100 percent certain you've mastered those distinctions, look those up as well in the course of your proofreading. I had one client who tended to mix up Australia and Austria. She knew which was which, but often wrote down the wrong one. I suspect that in her mind, they were homonyms, like "brakes" as in the car part and "breaks" as in "He breaks things when he's angry."

Pay special attention to the little words, such as prepositions. It's common to see "in" instead of "and" or sense-making prepositions omitted altogether. Remember how damaging it can be to one's message when the word "not" is left out.

The last troublespot I want to tell you about is foreign words, whether intentionally quoted as foreign words or foreign words that have made their way into English. Some languages that use the same alphabet system as English include diacritical marks and accents – little extra marks on top of or underneath the regular letters. These may be needed to ensure that something is spelled correctly. For example, facade, the front of a building, needs to have what's called a cedilla under the "c," which shows that it's a soft rather than a hard "c." The word jalapeno needs what's called a tilde over the "n." The word "souffle" requires an accent going upwards on the "e." The French car brand Citroen should have two dots, what's called an umlaut or trema, over the "e."

Because English doesn't typically use such marks, and because they're not found on keyboards marketed in English-speaking countries, many people don't know how to type them, so they leave them out. During proofreading, you may need to know how to put them in. What I usually do, I confess, is go online and find the word or name I need and copy and paste that into my document, making sure to change the font as needed. For instance, if I need to type Citroen with the two dots or trema, I'll just type it into Google without the dots and find an example with the dots that I can cut and paste.

To find instructions on the proper way to type letters with these marks, just go to Google and type in "how to type diacritical marks," and you'll easily find the directions for your particular device. Note that although everyone will know which car company you are referring to if you leave out the dots for Citroen, even though it's incorrect, in other instances leaving off the accent or other mark is completely wrong and will lead to misunderstanding. For instance, if you leave off the accent for "rosé wine," you would have "rose wine," and there is no such thing.

In the next lesson, we turn to situations that regularly trip up people – even conscientious people – who have responsibility for proofreading.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin