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 This term first arose in 1830 as a US variant of the now outdated word feeze, a Kentish dialect term meaning to alarm or scare off.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.

Can you think of anything hipper than a Dire Straits tribute act? We’ll wait.

 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.

Smell that salty, steaky, oreganoey sea air!


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.

Handy Timesavers

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.

Cute, though.

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.

Get in ur car, loser, we’re going spellchecking.

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!


Negative Prefixes

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’?

Look at this noble-as-heck guy. ‘One for sorrow’ indeed.

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.

So very 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.

Tricky Words

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.

A dissatisfied customer.


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!

You are my perfect golden child. I will not let any editor change a hair on your head.

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!

Avoid Distractions

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.

Stop doing that quiz about which My Little Pony you are! Time to proofread!

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!

Our two-dimensional hipster stock image is as surprised by the news as you are.

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.

This Doctor is an exception.

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.


Spellcheck and Proofreading Software

Sometimes we all like to feel needed. We give and give and give, and we’d like a little appreciation and commitment in return. But boring old human proofreaders aren’t terribly glamorous. We’re only flesh and blood. And sometimes customers seem to have greater faith in technology than in humanity.

I wonder why…

In today’s blog post, we’re looking at two non-fleshly attempts at recreating the effects of proofreading: Microsoft Word’s spellcheck and proofreading software such as Grammarly.


Most people who use Microsoft Word will be at least dimly aware that it has its own built-in spellchecker. If nothing else, it is hard to miss how it obnoxiously/helpfully underlines in red or green anything it thinks is wrong.

Sometimes it’s right.

Some people think that this eliminates the need for proofreading. But, though spellcheck can help root out typos, it is not built to understand subtleties of language. Look at the following, for instance:

Clearly this should read Proofreaders are usually more helpful than spellcheck. But while Word’s spellchecker has wrongly highlighted Proofreaders (this spelling is perfectly acceptable and more common than proof-readers or proof readers), it has failed to notice other glaring errors. It has not spotted the missing word. In addition, it has let help full slide as both help and full are correct in themselves.

That said, Word’s spellcheck can be a useful tool even for proofreaders. We certainly recommend you use it at least once after proofreading to root out any introduced errors such as typos or missing spaces.

But you don’t have to feel threatened by it. We see you. We love you. We think you’re more help full than spelcheque.

Proofreading Software

Proofreading software such as Grammarly is marketed as a way for people to become their own proofreaders. You’d therefore be forgiven for thinking that we’ve already been replaced. Not only does it supposedly pick up any and all typos and grammatical errors, but it comments (sometimes intelligently) on aspects of style.

But although Grammarly and its ilk are arguably more sophisticated than Word’s spellcheck, they simply cannot compete with an experienced human eye. Moreover, in order to pick up more than a basic spellcheck, one often has to pay for an expensive subscription that is hard to get out of should it not prove helpful.

Finally, software can’t interact with customers (though some might be able to put you through to a human). It can’t build a rapport with a customer or an understanding of their individual needs. It can’t even ask them their preferred reference style or the intended audience of their document.

So, really, though you may sometimes feel unappreciated, you are indispensable. For those about to proofread, we salute you.


MHRA Referencing

Remember when you used to get ‘Too Hot for TV’ videos of your favourite salacious TV shows? Remember how exciting they were? Well, prepare to feel that kind of excitement again in this brief introduction to MHRA referencing: a system considered Too Hot for the Proofreading Academy Course.

Actually, we made all of that up. Please bear with us. It’s hard to make referencing sexy.

What Is MHRA Referencing?

The Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) style is frequently used in the arts and humanities. Rather than in-text citations and a reference list, it uses footnotes with full publication details (on first reference) and a bibliography.

Footnotes: Books

Footnotes should be indicated by superscript numbers in the text. For a book reference, it would be set out in the following way:

n Author Name(s), Title, Edition if given (Place of Publication: Publisher, Year), Page(s).

In practice, this would look like this:

1 Arthur Atkinson, How Referencing Could Save Your Marriage, 2nd edn (London: Washboard Press, 1946), pp. 12–13.

Footnotes: Journal Articles

A footnote reference for a printed journal article would be set out as follows:

n Author Name(s), ‘Article Title’, Journal Title, Volume #. (Year), Page range of article (Pages).

So an example reference would look like this:

2 Clive Tucker and Jed Thomas, ‘A Fine Line: When Citation Turns to Obsession’, Bibliographilia, 16 (1997), 89–92 (p. 90).

In the case of an online journal article, you would also add a URL and date of access or a DOI (no date of access is required with a DOI):

3 Poula Fisch, ‘A Note on Footnotes: The Peculiar Allure of MHRA’, The Journal of Referencing Aesthetics, 24 (2012), 130–40 <> [accessed 6th June 2018] (p. 1).

Footnotes: Websites

To cite a website in a footnote, the following format should be used:

n Author Name(s), Title (Year) [date accessed].

4 David Angel, 10 Celebrities Who Overcame Referencing Addiction (2010), <> [accessed 10th June 2018].

Footnotes: Repeat Citations

When citing a source more than once, all citations after the first should use the shortest intelligible form. This would typically include just the author’s surname and a page reference:

1 Arthur Atkinson, How Referencing Could Save Your Marriage, 2nd edn (London: Washboard Press, 1946), pp. 12–13.
2 Clive Tucker and Jed Thomas, ‘A Fine Line: When Citation Turns to Obsession’, Bibliographilia, 16 (1997), 89–92 (p. 90).
3 Atkinson, p. 9.

Here, for example, the third citation is the same source as the first. If using just the name would be ambiguous, you can also include a shortened source title.

Bibliography: The Basics

All sources cited in footnotes should be included in a bibliography. This should be in alphabetical order by author surname, which should appear first, like so:

Atkinson, Arthur, How Referencing Could Save Your Marriage, 2nd edn (London: Washboard Press, 1946)

Note that, unlike in footnotes, references in the bibliography do not end with a full stop. In addition, if more than one author is listed, only the first author’s names should be reversed. Anonymous works should be listed alphabetically by title, ignoring any initial definite or indefinite articles.

If multiple works by the same author are listed, subsequent entries after the first should replace the author name with 2 em dashes, with all works by the same author listed together in alphabetical order by title (ignoring initial articles).

A Sample Bibliography

Angel, David, 10 Celebrities Who Overcame Referencing Addiction (2010), <> [accessed 10th June 2018]

Atkinson, Arthur, How Referencing Could Save Your Marriage, 2nd edn (London: Washboard Press, 1946)

——, A Life Well Referenced (London: Washboard Press, 1960)

Fisch, Poula, ‘A Note on Footnotes: The Peculiar Allure of MHRA’, The Journal of Referencing Aesthetics, 24 (2012), 130–40 <> [accessed 6th June 2018]

The Monkey on My Back Page: Confessions of a Reference Junkie (Manchester: Sanctuary)

Tucker, Clive and Jed Thomas, ‘A Fine Line: When Citation Turns to Obsession’, Bibliographilia 16 (1997), 89–92


Dealing with Difficult Proofreading Situations

All proofreading jobs are not equal. As with any career, some tasks will be more difficult than others. Documents from ESL customers typically take longer to proofread than those from native speakers; documents with extensive formatting requirements can be bothersome; dense scientific texts can be hard to follow; and preserving the authorial voice in creative writing can be tricky. But we accept these things because they are part and parcel of being a proofreader.

However, there is a line (and sometimes a fine one) between difficult and unacceptable. What do you do when a customer makes an unreasonable request? How can you deal with situations in which customers expect more than you are able to give, take advantage of you, or treat you poorly? In today’s blog post, we offer some tips on avoiding or tackling unpleasant situations.

Clarify Your Services

The best way to avoid customers misunderstanding your remit or pushing for more is to make your position clear from the beginning. Make sure the customer understands what you can and can’t do, as well as your rates and the time required to proofread the document. Set rates that refer to everything you do, not just the initial proofread. Once the customer is clear on what you provide, agree a payment schedule.

Protect Your Reputation

If you are a good proofreader and do the necessary work to find clients, you need not compromise your ethics for the sake of a job. Of course, we can’t tell you what to do in this regard. But we can strongly advise you. There are some who are willing to work for essay mills, producing content for customers to pass off as their own. Others are happy to adjust academic content to fit word counts or substantially rewrite ESL essays, but this still risks accusations of plagiarism. We do not recommend it. If you do decide to go over to the dark side, you’d better hope nobody finds out!

Remain in Control

Eventually, pretty much every proofreader will encounter a customer who doesn’t know when to stop. They keep coming back with complaints, queries, and extra requests, constantly moving the goalposts to get more out of you than was promised. In these situations it’s easy to feel helpless.

But you don’t need to lie back and allow yourself to be swept along on the whims of the customer. There are some situations in which the customer is not right. If you have delivered the service that you agreed with the customer, you do not owe them anything extra. If all else fails, politely shut the conversation down by simply reiterating your position and sticking to it.

Know Your Red Lines

Some behaviour is simply unacceptable. Opinions on what can or cannot be tolerated will vary, but it’s important to know what falls into the second category for you. No one has to accept abuse or harassment. A customer who bullies you is not worth keeping. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often.


Formatting Titles in Academic Documents

Although proofreading and formatting are different disciplines, there are some points where they overlap. For instance, when an essay names a source in the text, it is standard practice for the proofreader to ensure the title of that source is appropriately formatted. This is not an issue of making the document look attractive, but rather one of conforming to referencing conventions.

You probably know that the two main ways of formatting titles in academic documents are italics and quotation marks.

We nearly wrote italics and ‘quotation marks’, but that makes it look unnecessarily sarcastic.

But trainee proofreaders don’t always use these formats correctly (e.g. one common error is using italics regardless of the type of text cited). In practice, italics and quotation marks have distinct uses when formatting titles.

When to Use Italics

Titles are typically italicised when they refer to longer-form sources that have been published as standalone works. These include:

  • Books
  • Journals
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Websites and blogs
  • Films
  • TV shows
  • Plays
  • Book-length poems
  • Works of visual art
  • Music albums

When to Use Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are typically used for shorter works, particularly those that form part of a larger whole. These include:

  • Chapters of books
  • Journal articles
  • Newspaper or magazine articles
  • Pages of a website
  • Blog posts
  • Episodes of a TV show
  • Shorter poems
  • Short stories
  • Songs

When You’re Not Sure

Of course, it’s not always that easy. It may be that the document you’re proofreading doesn’t give much of a clue as to the nature of the texts cited. If this happens, you can look them up online or ask the customer. If you’re not familiar with your customer’s referencing system, moreover, look online for guidance or ask the customer for a style guide.


Begin the course at any time.

Train when you want to.