Word Choice: Similar Words or Similar Meanings
Our rich and annoying language has many words whose meanings are subtly distinct. It also has many words with similar spellings. Sometimes the two intersect, and we’re faced with a double whammy of confusion. Today we look at three sets of words that we suspect are only there to try to catch us out.
Clever vs. Intelligent
In some circumstances, the words clever and intelligent can be used interchangeably. Indeed, in everyday speech or informal writing, when a person is described as clever, this often means they are intelligent. But there are some important differences between these words.
Someone who is intelligent is intellectual. They have a strong mental capacity. The word intelligent is not generally used to describe other skills, such as manual or artistic abilities. However, it can be used in phrases such as an intelligent use of your time.
Someone who is clever may be intellectual, but they may (for instance) be skilled or streetwise. This word can also be used to describe the skill or activity rather than the person who possesses or performs it. Clever is therefore a broader term than intelligent.
Recur vs. Reoccur
Both recur and reoccur mean to happen again. Take the two examples below:
Symptoms may reoccur if treatment is discontinued.
Symptoms may recur if treatment is discontinued.
Here, the two terms are interchangeable. Both examples mean that a person may experience their symptoms again if they stop treatment.
The distinction between recur and reoccur relates to frequency. Something that reoccurs simply happens again: there is no indication of how frequently it happens. Indeed, it may be that something has only happened twice:
The patient’s back problems reoccurred the following summer.
The word recur can be used when something has only happened twice, too, but it more typically suggests that something happens repeatedly or regularly:
I have a recurring dream that I’m doing a post-apocalyptic giant dog photo-shoot.
I wonder how soon the use of this particular stock photo will reoccur.
Compliment vs. Complement
Unlike the terms above, compliment and complement are never synonymous. But they’re still often confused, so it’s important for proofreaders to know their distinct meanings.
To compliment someone is to say something flattering or kind to or about them. A flattering remark is thus complimentary. Another use of complimentary, though, is to mean free of charge.
When something combines with or augments something else to good effect, it is complementary. And when all members of a group or set are present, it is described as a full complement.
As always, if you are unsure of what a customer is trying to say, leave them a comment asking them to clarify their meaning or check your changes.
Everybody Loves Referencing
You’ve checked the spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You’ve made sure the language flows well and that it is appropriately academic. Now comes your favourite bit. Perhaps you’d like to dress up a little and pour yourself a glass of wine (alcohol-free, of course: don’t drink and proofread!) before you settle down to the positive treat that is the reference list.
What? You don’t love proofreading references? You don’t smile fondly every time you see a citation that needs work? You don’t let out a whoop of joy when faced with an obscure, complicated referencing style? What on earth is wrong with you?
For the rest of us, then, the normies who are content as long as we have a gingerbread latte, some pizza, and OSCOLA footnotes to enjoy, here is a celebration of some of referencing’s most adorable foibles.
I Didn’t Mean THAT Harvard
One of the things we adore about checking references is the way everything we know can go out the window at the drop of a style guide. Many styles and systems vary between institutions. Indeed, in the case of Harvard there is no ‘system’, as such, at all. Rather, it is an umbrella term covering many styles of author–date referencing.
When faced with an academic document, therefore, it is worth checking which version of a referencing style the customer is using. Otherwise you risk making unnecessary or incorrect edits. For instance, the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style recommended using ibid. for repeat references, while the 17th edition suggests using a shortened version of the first citation instead.
Referencing Style: Essay
We just beam with pleasure when we ask for a customer’s referencing style and get an answer that gives us no clue whatsoever. It makes us feel like detectives.
When this happens, your first port of call should be to contact the customer and politely explain what you mean, giving examples. This is often enough to glean the information you need. Alternatively, the customer may have to get in touch with their university to ascertain which referencing style they need to use.
If all else fails, just ensure material is cited and referenced clearly and consistently, and make sure to leave a comment for the customer to remind them to check their references and citations are formatted correctly.
Wizard Boy and the Thinker’s Rock
It’s always exciting to see a title or author name and just know it’s been copied down or remembered incorrectly. Moreover, some customers may appear to have a mental block regarding consistent spelling. Perhaps an author is sometimes Robert and sometimes Roberts. Perhaps the name of a text alternates between The Title, A Title and just Title.
You can always check this yourself and make changes if you are confident that you have found the correct edition of the source in question. However, if you are at all unsure, you should leave a comment for the customer asking them to check and amend the word or words in question rather than making changes yourself.
The Ideal Date
You look lovely today.
We at Proofreading Academy know this may seem a little forward, but… what would your dream date be?
Our dates aren’t terribly romantic, but they’re always formatted impeccably. Yes, today we’re talking about the finer points of formatting dates in writing.
The main issue that determines date format is whether you’re using UK/Aus English or US English. Dates in UK and Australian English typically read day/month/year, while those in US English read month/day/year.
So the following would be correct in UK or Australian English:
5 August, 1981
But in US English the same date would read:
August 5, 1981
This is fairly well known, but it is easy to forget if you usually use one format and are checking a document that requires another. It is thus vital to know what dialect your customer has asked you to use when proofreading their work.
In formal writing, it would be unusual to use an all-numeric date format. The date 5/8/1981 would look out of place in an academic document, for example, so you would usually amend it to say 5 August, 1981 instead. However, using a shorthand version of the date is perfectly acceptable in many kinds of writing (e.g. posters, newsletters and other informal documents).
Note that, even in formal writing, we use numerals for the day. This applies unless the number is part of the standard name of a notable day, such as with the Fourth of July. Beyond that, the best date format to use will depend on the customer’s preference or their chosen style guide. For instance, in a UK document, any of the following would be acceptable:
5 August, 1981
5th August 1981
5th Aug. ‘81
the 5th of August, 1981
As shown above, the comma before the year is also optional. If you are unsure of the best format, ask the customer if they have a style guide or preference. If not, simply ensure that dates are formatted consistently throughout the document.
Halloween has come and gone, so naturally every TV advert, shop window, and café playlist thinks that the festive season has arrived. Perhaps you’ve already started stockpiling gifts and anticipating a long holiday full of sherry and Slade. But there’s no rest for the pedantic. If you or a loved one is a freelance proofreader, the holidays may well be more about dotting the Is than Morecambe and Wise. But even proofreaders deserve a treat this Christmas. So what gifts would make a professional word nerd happy this Yuletide?
A Room of One’s Own
It’s impossible to give your full attention to proofreading if you’re trying to compete with a roommate watching football or children jumping on the bed. Ideally, you would have a dedicated place for working. This should include a computer, a desk, a good office chair, decent lighting and, above all, privacy.
However, we are not all fortunate enough to have what Virginia Woolf called ‘a room of one’s own’. An acceptable alternative, therefore, is to make yourself comfortable and eliminate distractions when proofreading.
Sit somewhere where you can maintain good posture: being hunched up on the sofa with a laptop may be tempting, but it is bad for your back. Go to a café if you can find one that isn’t too noisy. Or put on some background music at home (as long as it’s not too distracting). Try to create a pleasant working environment.
We proofreaders are not always the best at looking after ourselves. It’s easy to get wrapped up in work and forget to do the simplest things, particularly when working on a long document or during a busy period. One of the best gifts we can give ourselves as proofreaders is self-care. Keep that body and mind in tip-top condition, and good work will follow.
So make sure you eat healthily and stay hydrated. Take regular breaks. Try to get plenty of sleep at night so that you’re alert during the day. And get a little exercise; it stimulates the mind and improves your mood, as well as being great for your body. Remember, a proofreader is a person first!
The Right Tools
You can’t be a carpenter with a butter knife and some Sellotape. And, similarly, a proofreader with inappropriate tools is unlikely to get much work. Minimally, you should have the following things:
• A computer
• An email address
• The latest version of Microsoft Word
It may be galling to old-school editors who prefer to daub arcane marks on hard-copy manuscripts with a red pen, but times change. Most freelance proofreaders now work on a computer, so it’s imperative to equip yourself accordingly.
The Proofreading Academy Course
Finally, if you haven’t signed up to the Proofreading Academy course yet, why not? We truly believe this course to be the most comprehensive and useful learning tool out there. And as well as the finer points of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, it also covers essential skills needed to work as a professional freelance proofreader.
Really, then, the Proofreading Academy course is the must-have for anyone who wants to begin proofreading, or even anyone who just wants to brush up on their editing skills. And if you obtain a pass grade of 80% or above on your first attempt at the final assessment, you are guaranteed work with our proofreading partner company! So go on: treat yourself!
Three Confusing Spellings Explained
We understand. You’ve been under a lot of strain recently. A proofreader’s job is not always easy. And sometimes the wrong spellings just look so right. But don’t be fazed by or rack your brain over the constrictive straitjacket of spelling. Just sit back and join us for a look at the origins of three confusing words, as we explain why they’re spelled the way they are.
Fazed vs. Phased
The word phase, in the sense of stage of a process, is very widely used. It can also be used as a verb, meaning to carry out in phases or (with in) to introduce in stages. So, for instance, the following would be correct:
The new system will be phased in over several months.
If, however, a customer is talking about being daunted or disturbed, the correct word will be fazed. This term first arose in 1830 as a US variant of the now outdated word feeze, a Kentish dialect term meaning to alarm or scare off. This was drawn from the Old English fesian, meaning to drive away.
Straitjacket vs. Straightjacket
OK, we admit it: straightjacket is now a widely accepted variant of straitjacket. However, it’s not how it was originally spelled. And if you’re proofreading a piece of formal writing, such as an academic or business document, it’s typically best to use the traditional spelling of this word.
Originally, the term straitjacket came from the word strait, meaning narrow or tight. This is not a common word in modern English (certainly not compared to straight), but we still use it to refer to a narrow stretch of water. We also use it in terms such as the equally commonly misspelled strait-laced and dire straits.
Rack vs. Wrack
Like faze and phase, both rack and wrack are real words with real uses. They are, however, even more troublesome, since their meanings could be said to overlap. Certainly, neither is something you would want done to your brain.
Rack can be traced back to the Old English verb recken, meaning to stretch out. This lent its meaning to the Middle English rack, which referred to a frame on which something was stretched out. And soon this term was applied to a frame on which people were stretched out and the act of stretching them. It is, in fact, this form of torture that gives us the term rack your brain. Your mind is experiencing strain, like someone being tortured on a rack.
The word wrack, meanwhile, is thought to have come from the Middle Dutch wrak, meaning wreck. This led to the use of wrack in English as a verb meaning to destroy and as a noun to refer to a shipwreck. It is seldom used now except in phrases that reflect this nautical origin, such as wrack and ruin or storm-wracked.
However, language changes over time and now most verb forms of rack and wrack meaning strain and pain are essentially interchangeable. The noun forms, on the other hand, are not. So unless you found it in pieces at the bottom of the sea, you probably shouldn’t call this a spice wrack.
Shortcuts and Timesavers: The Good and the Bad
Proofreading is often a slow, painstaking process. Even at the best of times, it can be frustrating. So when there’s a deadline looming or a frazzled customer on your back, it’s very tempting to look for shortcuts.
Some of these shortcuts are legitimate timesaving tips that proofreaders should learn to improve their efficiency. Some are useful when used with discernment and care, but potentially disastrous when used indiscriminately. And some have no place in proofreading at all. But how to tell the difference? We’ll tell you how! By reading our blog, of course.
There was a time when the only way to recreate a manuscript was to copy it meticulously by hand. But while we may mourn scribing as a lost art, there can be little doubt that the advent of the printing press made life a lot easier. And when computers took over, we made another leap in efficiency.
As methods of publishing developed, so did methods of proofreading. Our fore-editors used editors’ marks on hard copies, which made them look super esoteric and clever. It was not, however, especially efficient.
Today, as a proofreader, you would be unlikely to use this method in your day-to-day work. There may be some customers who prefer it (for instance, those who do not get on well with or have access to technology), but most of your editing will be done in Microsoft Word.
Word also allows you to quickly and easily make both a clean copy of any document and a version with tracked changes. This is a professional way to present proofread documents to the customer. It allows them to see exactly what changes have been made, while also having a clean copy that is ready to use.
But you wouldn’t want to manually make changes to two different copies. As well as being slow, this increases the risk of introducing new errors or discrepancies between the copies. Handy, then, that there are two different ways to quickly create both versions without worrying about differences. You can either work on a tracked copy and then accept all changes to create the clean copy or work clean and use Word’s Combine function to create a tracked version.
A frenemy is (in case you didn’t know) part friend, part enemy. And proofreaders have such ambiguous relationships with some of the features offered by Microsoft Word. Indeed, more fall into this category than any other.
Let’s start with our old friend, spellcheck: easy to get on with but liable to get you into trouble if you depend too much on its advice.
It should go without saying that if someone depends exclusively on Word’s spellcheck function, they probably shouldn’t be a proofreader. But that doesn’t mean that it should be avoided altogether. Spellcheck can pick up typos and is particularly useful when employed after proofreading, when it can highlight any introduced errors such as missing spaces.
The find and replace function can also be friend or foe. It can and should be used to remove double spaces, and it can also be used if a customer persistently misspells a word. But the latter is a risky business. For instance, say a customer regularly spells rhyme as rime. It might be tempting to skip straight to Replace All, but then any word that contains the letters r-i-m-e will also be changed. And that would be a crhyme.
The thesaurus function may be useful if you know a word is not quite right but can’t bring a more appropriate term to mind. However, it should obviously be used with caution. Synonyms won’t work in every situation. Take a row, for instance: it might be a line or a fight. But you can’t say you spent fifteen minutes waiting in an argument or that the neighbours were having a blazing queue. And the fanciest word isn’t always the best. More verbose is not better.
Shortcuts to Chaos
There aren’t many shortcuts that are all bad. However, there are a couple.
Don’t rely on proofreading software. Please, please don’t. While, like Word’s spellcheck, it can be useful, as a proofreader you are being paid to cast an observant human eye over people’s writing. Don’t sell your customers short by passing your work on to a piece of software.
And, finally, don’t focus solely on spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You need to be mindful of the sense of what you’re reading, even if you are just doing a very light proofread. Ignoring the sense of what someone is saying in a document can lead to mistakes being added and meanings being changed.
So there you go. Some timesavers are highways to efficiency and quality, some are career dead ends. Choose your road wisely!
English is a magpie language. It loves to pick up shiny words and word-parts wherever it finds them, and it doesn’t care how disorganised its rules become in the process. Or should that be ‘unorganised’?
Take prefixes. Sometimes a whole load of them mean roughly the same thing. For example, de-, dis-, un-, and in- all signify that something isn’t the case. And they’re not the only negative prefixes. Don’t get us started on im-, il-, a-, ab-, and non-!
Rather than try to explain this topic in full, then, for now we’ll take a look at a few common proofreading issues related to negative prefixes.
Prefixes and ESL Customers
If you’ve grown up with the English language, word stems that take only one negative prefix will look silly when the wrong one is used. Most fluent English speakers would instantly recognise the problems with the following:
Feeling disimportant can make you inhappy.
But the fact that many prefixes have similar uses means they can be challenging for ESL customers. As such, you should look out for prefix-related mistakes when proofreading ESL documents. Never assume that what seems obvious to you will be obvious to someone whose first language isn’t English.
Some word stems can take more than one negative prefix. And this can make distinguishing between similar words tricky, even for fluent English speakers. Word stems that can take either dis- or un- to create words with distinct meanings are particular offenders.
Uninterested vs. Disinterested
There is a big difference between being uninterested and being disinterested, and it’s one you wouldn’t want to let slide in a customer’s work.
Uninterested means not interested. Disinterested, meanwhile, means having no vested interest in something. So it’s good for a researcher to be disinterested, as it means they’re approaching their study without bias. But it’s probably a bad thing if they’re uninterested, since they won’t do their best work if they’re bored!
Unorganised vs. Disorganised
When used to mean not organised, in the sense of being chaotic, the distinction between unorganised and disorganised is subtle. In fact, when used this way, the two words are basically synonymous. However, some maintain that unorganised is more neutral in tone, while disorganised is more negative.
Unorganised also has some niche uses that disorganised doesn’t cover, including:
- Having no organic structure
- Not organised into a worker’s union
Unsatisfied vs. Dissatisfied
Here the distinction is small, but using the wrong word will subtly change the meaning of a sentence. Both terms mean not satisfied, but while an unsatisfied person is not satisfied yet, a dissatisfied person is actively displeased.
So someone who is unsatisfied by their food might order some more.
But someone who is dissatisfied with their food might send it back.
Proofreading Creative Writing
Truth hurts. That’s why everyday life is full of little white lies, and why most of the human race avoids telling anyone that their baby isn’t all that pretty.
But proofreaders aren’t so lucky. Our career is a world of uncomfortable truths. And this is especially true when working with authors looking to submit a manuscript or self-publish.
Authors put their hearts and souls into their creative endeavours, so any criticism, however necessary, can be hard to take. In this blog post, therefore, we look at the delicate art of proofreading creative writing.
Work with the Customer
When dealing with work that is personal, it is extremely important to establish a working relationship with the customer. Find out exactly what they need. Check that any non-straightforward changes are acceptable to them. Be there to explain and discuss the editing process so as to ensure that you are not creating a Frankenstein’s monster of their baby!
Use a Light Touch
Proofreading is generally not about heavy substantial edits, but when proofreading creative writing it’s less simple. Maintaining the authorial ‘voice’ throughout the document is paramount. You may not like their style – you may think it could be improved – but unless they’ve asked for stylistic feedback that’s not your call. However, some authors may require substantial changes in order to please their editor. Either way, make sure you check with the customer before chopping their work about.
Moreover, in creative writing and particularly in poetry, there is room for playing with conventions. Unusual grammar and made-up words are not unusual. Use common sense and check before changing anything that the author might have done deliberately.
Be a Proofreader
That said, remember what you’re there for. Littering your customer’s work with unsolicited substantial changes can be disastrous, but the reverse can be just as bad. Don’t get so swept up in reading the text that you forget to treat it as a job. And don’t be so scared of hurting the customer’s feelings that you let errors slide. Again, common sense is key.
Be Tactful but Clear
When communicating issues to the customer, find a balance between tact and clarity. On the one hand, you should never be rude or dismissive about their work. On the other, you help no one if you fail to clearly communicate a problem or offer a solution. Be professional. Be authoritative. But be kind.
Authors who find a proofreader who is both personable and helpful will often come back to that proofreader with more work. So be the best you can, and you may find yourself with a happy regular customer!
Improving Your Work Performance
You care enough about your career to read this blog, so you probably want to be the best proofreader you can be. If you’re doing or have already completed our Proofreading Academy course, you’re on the right track!
But expertise isn’t all you need to work effectively. You also need to be smart about how you work. Otherwise you risk delivering the wrong thing, running out of time, or simply burning out.
Manage Your Workload
Many proofreaders work freelance and need all the work they can get to make ends meet. But there’s no point taking on more than you can physically do.
Be aware of how quickly you work. Moreover, be aware of how quickly you can work well. Note that some documents will take longer than others.
Where possible, give yourself some wriggle-room in case there are unforeseen difficulties. There are few things more embarrassingly unprofessional than claiming you can do something for a customer and then realising you’ve overloaded yourself and can’t deliver.
Keep in Touch
You can’t give the customer what they want if you don’t know what they want. You need to establish their needs and what you can and can’t do for them from the outset.
But that’s not all. You should also be contactable while you are working, just in case the customer needs to tell you something important. The moment you return their proofread document is too late to discover that they emailed hours or days ago to say they accidentally sent the wrong one!
It’s easy to become distracted by things such as social media. But when you’re working to a deadline you can’t afford to get sidetracked. If you simply cannot trust yourself to leave Twitter and Facebook alone, try one of these website blockers designed to remove the temptation.
Remember to Rest
Finally, although you can’t be lazing about when you ought to be working, you should build rest time into your schedule where possible. A burnt out proofreader is rarely an effective one.
Also, you should take regular short breaks while proofreading in order to refresh yourself, stretch your legs, and regain the focus that can be lost when staring at a screen for hours.
Capitalisation: Compass Points and Titles
Capitalisation is one of those fiddly little issues that everyone thinks they understand until they don’t. This is because it’s not as simple as knowing to start sentences and proper nouns with a capital letter. Really, it’s not!
In our time training proofreaders, we’ve noticed that the subtleties of capitalisation can sometimes confuse even the best students. So, today, we’re going to look at two tricky capitalisation issues that might trip you up.
Compass Points and Directions
It is a common misconception that the four compass directions should always be capitalised. This is not the case. Indeed, they follow the same rules as any other word most of the time and should only be capitalised when they form part of a proper noun. So the following, for instance, would be correct:
In the south of England there are strong westerly winds, but on the West Coast of America it is sunny.
Here, West Coast is a proper noun: the name of a specific region. In contrast, south of England refers to a generalised area and westerly to a general direction.
We’re not talking book titles or chapter headings here. Different style guides and referencing systems will have their own rules for those. No, we’re talking about people’s titles and when they should be capitalised.
Terms such as Mrs, Mr and Ms are simple because they are rarely used except alongside a person’s name, such as Mr Bean or Mrs Slokum. We therefore know to capitalise them.
But other titles are more complicated. Take doctor, for instance. This term should only be capitalised when it is used alongside someone’s name. In other cases, it simply refers to someone with a doctorate and should be lowercase unless it appears at the start of a sentence. So, both of the following are correct:
I am going to see Doctor Jones.
I am going to see a doctor.
In the first example above, Doctor is capitalised as part of a title (this would often be shortened to Dr). In the second, the speaker is referring to doctors in general rather than naming a specific doctor, so we do not need a capital letter.
Similarly, titles of family members such as mother, father, aunt and uncle are only capitalised when they are used as names or parts of names. So the following two sentences are correct:
I asked Mum when Auntie Fay was coming over.
I asked my mum when my auntie was coming over.