Proofreaders need to be careful not to overlook mistakes in text while they work. Here, for instance, we’re going to look at five errors that new proofreaders often miss in documents:
- Mix-ups involving unfamiliar homophones.
- Multiple independent clauses combined in a comma splice.
- Inconsistencies in a document that don’t involve explicit errors.
- Misplaced or missing apostrophes in words.
- Errors that are accidentally introduced during the proofreading process.
For more advice on what to look for as a new proofreader, read on below.
1. Unfamiliar Homophones
Homophones – i.e., words that sound the same but have different meanings – are a common issue in proofreading. And anyone who works as a proofreader should be aware of them.
However, it is easy to overlook homophone errors if you’re dealing with an unusual or unfamiliar word, such as technical term that you haven’t seen written down before.
A “barre,” for instance, is a handrail used in ballet practice. But this word sounds exactly like “bar,” a term that can also refer to a metal pole or rail. As a result, if you haven’t seen “barre” written down before, it would be easy to miss someone misspelling it as “bar.”
New proofreaders, then, should do their best to make sure they:
- Are familiar with terminology in the subject area of the documents they proofread.
- Look up words if they seem to be used in an unfamiliar way to make sure the usage and spelling are correct for the context (and to find the correct homophone if necessary).
This will help you to catch all homophone errors in a document.
2. Comma Splices
A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined with a comma:
The researchers repeated the test, it produced the same results.
What we have here is two sentences joined with only a comma. This is fairly common in informal writing – hence being easy to overlook for new proofreaders – but it is an error.
The key in this case is to pay close attention to how sentences are constructed. If you ever see independent clauses joined with only a comma, it will need correcting.
The simplest option in this case is typically to split the comma splice into two sentences:
The researchers repeated the test. It produced the same results.
Other options include adding a coordinating conjunction after the comma (make sure the conjunction fits the context, if so), or switching the comma for a semicolon:
The researchers repeated the test, but it produced the same results.
The researchers repeated the test; it produced the same results.
The best solution will depend on the context and your client’s writing style. But as long as you know what to look for, you can address any comma splices you spot.
New proofreaders often focus on errors such as typos or misused punctuation. But this can lead to missing inconsistencies in a document, which are equally problematic in some cases.
Examples of inconsistencies a proofreader may need to correct or highlight include:
- Variant spellings or inconsistencies in spellings of proper nouns (e.g., people’s names).
- Inconsistent punctuation usage (e.g., haphazard application of the serial comma, or switching between “double quote marks” and ‘inverted commas’).
- Unsystematic use of numerals and words for presenting numbers (e.g., switching from numerals to words within a sentence or in similar contexts).
- Inconsistent time and date formats (e.g., switching from 6.5.2020 to June 5, 2020).
- Formatting issues, such as inconsistent page layouts or title capitalization.
- Tonal inconsistencies, such as informal language in an otherwise formal document.
- Referencing and citation formats in academic writing.
More generally, a good proofreader will check a document for stylistic consistency throughout, from the mechanics of writing (e.g., punctuation, spelling) to the overall style.
4. Misplaced or Missing Apostrophes
Apostrophes have many uses, so it is easy to miss certain errors. Common examples include:
- Its and it’s – “Its” (i.e., the possessive form of it) and “it’s” (i.e., a contraction of it is or it has) are very common terms, making it easy to skim over mix ups.
- Apostrophes in plurals – While proofreaders should know that an apostrophe in a plural is wrong, it is easy to miss this with abbreviations (e.g., four CD’s or two MP’s). Some style guides permit apostrophes in plurals of numbers (e.g., 7’s and 8’s) and lowercase letters (e.g., p’s and q’s), but this is not universal, so remember to check.
- Apostrophes in decades – Decades do not require an apostrophe (i.e., 1970s, not 1970’s).
- Words that end “s” – Style guides often vary on whether to use just an apostrophe or an apostrophe plus another “s” when a word already ends in “s” (e.g., Socrates’ ideas vs. Socrates’s ideas). This makes it important to check which style your client is using and to make sure apostrophes are used consistently in different parts of a document.
- Joint ownership – Make sure to check how apostrophes are used when referring to shared or joint ownership. For instance, “Ben and Deborah’s luggage,” with only one possessive apostrophe, implies luggage jointly owned by two people. But “Ben’s and Deborah’s luggage,” with two apostrophes, would refer to two people, each with their own luggage.
This is not a comprehensive list of apostrophe errors! But it does show that there are several issues that can arise, so it is worth keeping a close eye on these punctuation marks.
5. Introduced Errors
The cardinal sin of proofreading is adding mistakes to a document that weren’t there when you started! However, this is relatively easy to do if you’re not careful.
While editing a document, for instance, you might accidentally delete a space between words. Or maybe you’re using Track Changes and the markup means you miss a typo in one of your corrections. Or maybe it’s just a spelling error in a comment you’ve added somewhere.
Any introduced errors, though, will look unprofessional (no matter how small). This is why you should always review the changes you make to a document before returning it to the client.
Becoming A Proofreader
If you are new to proofreading, the Becoming A Proofreader course will help you get started (and to avoid the kinds of errors noted above). You can even try it for free! Find out whether you have what it takes to become a freelancer proofreader with Proofreading Academy.