Proofreading: It’s not about knowing when you’re wrong

As a proofreader, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong is not important. Instead, it’s important to know what is right, and what *might be* wrong.

As communicating humans, we build up a base of knowledge about writing over time. Most of us know how to spell common words. Many of us are competent at spelling more cumbersome words, perhaps those with idiosyncrasies. (See what I did there?) And almost everyone knows that sentences should start with a capital letter.

Some of the more subtle rules people may not be aware of. (Prepositions at the end of sentences? Oh, do be quiet!) I know double-spacers – people who put two spaces after a full stop. Hell, I used to be one of them. I know lots of people who introduce bullets with the mouthless colon–hyphen :- emoticon. (This is not good form, btw.) And there are people who understand why the aforementioned colon–hyphen construct has been separated with an en dash as opposed to a hyphen. (These people are few, far between and mostly virgins.)

To this day, I don’t know the full ruleset for the ordering of full stops/commas and quotation marks. (Indeed the rules differ between American and British English.) I know that a full sentence should have its associated full stop enclosed in the quotation marks, and that a partial sentence should have its full stop sit outside the quotation marks. But I struggle when things become more complex than that.

I don’t know the postcode address file by rote. But I know to check every address I proofread. So when I stumble upon a cover letter for a multi-million pound bid, I know to correct the mis-typed address. I don’t know the product number for every single Cisco switch and router, but I will Google every single one that I see to make sure it’s a genuine product, and that the hyphens and capitals are correct.

When I figuratively hit a principle/principal, it takes me five seconds or so to figure out the correct spelling. Regardless of context, I have to picture a headmaster’s office door, imagine the PRINCIPAL sign that it might display, establish that in this situation, the word means important, and then figure out whether that meaning applies here.

The point is, I am aware of my limited knowledge in these areas, and I know to look things up when I need to review such text. The sign of a good proofreader is not someone who knows every single rule. Yes, a good proofreader will know lots of rules. But for any rule (s)he doesn’t know, (s)he will know to question it, and will hunt it down until it’s right.

Posted by Dan, 13 February, 2015 under Life

Proofreading process cannot be terminated

Ever since becoming a professional proofreader, I read everything I see with a critical eye.

If I receive documents in my non-proofreading job, I try to find errors. The same goes for emails, flyers that come through the door, takeaway and restaurant menus, letters from my utility providers, shop signage (one of my favourites), my daughter’s party invites, Facebook updates, news articles, school newsletters, updates from the headmistress (on a par with shop signage for enjoyment), instruction manuals, product packaging, pub blackboards, the list goes on.

While in the main I enjoy it, it’s also a hindrance. It’s not something I can just switch off.

Wherever English is written, I will try to pull it apart. For that is my job.

Posted by Dan, 1 June, 2014 under Life

Proofreaders need proofreaders

When reading things, I read in one of two modes. I either read assuming the text is right; or I read assuming there are errors.

When reading something that I’ve written, I’m in the former mode. After all, why would I make mistakes? (That’s not arrogance. Just human nature.) When reading something that someone else has written, I assume there are mistakes, and I try to find them. After all, I’m a proofreader. That’s my job. You can’t just turn it off. (Pointing out said mistakes is the only thing you can turn off.) I expect people in other industries behave similarly.

Part of the reason for the different modes is the aforementioned human nature. We assume things that we’ve done are correct, because our aim when doing them was to do them correctly. But familiarity also plays a part. If I’ve just typed an email, I know what I intended to write, and so when reading it back five minutes later, I read what I intended as opposed to what is necessarily written. If there’s a missing “an”, then I’ll assume the “an” is there, because that was my intention when writing it. And so I won’t spot the error.

For this reason, I am unable to proofread something that I’ve written to the same standard as I would someone else’s work. This issue is maximised when it’s just been written.

*Awaits comments about grammatical errors in the above post*

Posted by Dan, under Life

Our biggest undertaking to date

At the end of August, our biggest client informed us that there were two big pieces of proofreading work coming up. One would land early- to mid-September; the other would be more towards the end of September. Together, the two projects were estimated to total 119,000 words.

On 17 September, we received the first document for review. It arrived later than we’d hoped, but we’re here to manage such things. Delays to one of the pieces meant that there would be far more overlap between the two pieces of work than I had hoped for. This created resource contention and meant that I needed to bring additional resource onto the projects.

The documents kept coming. In the end, the smaller of the two pieces of work exceeded the total word estimated count for the pair of bids: a whopping 130,000. But the other piece was larger still, 319,000 words spread across 14 separate documents. The task was 277% bigger than the one we’d envisaged!

To put that into context, that’s like proofreading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. All three books. Cover to cover. (Although the content was very different. Arguably more enjoyable. *ducks*) My personal contribution was 162,000 words, a smidgen short of the Fellowship of the Ring word count.

From the first document landing to the last deliverable being sent back to the client, 22 days elapsed. In those 22 days, four of us worked rather unsociable hours to get the job done. Between us, we made 53,236 changes across 23 documents.

The client appears to be delighted with our work, likening our skills to those of a “delicate butcher”.

And I am delighted that, once again, we rose to the challenge.

Posted by Dan, 13 October, 2013 under Life

Proofreading: what constitutes the extra mile (1.6km)?

Proofreading: it isn’t what it used to be.

In the olden days, yesteryear and indeed days of yore, proofreading was a very different task to what it has become. Back then, it involved sitting down in front of a paper manuscript with some weighty tomes within arm’s reach for reference—likely a dictionary or two and a thesaurus, be it Roget’s or someone else’s.

Apart from the move to almost exclusively electronic editing, there are two key ways in which proofreading has evolved. First, the research tools available are much richer; and second, clients’ expectations have rightly increased.

Every resource you could ever want is available at your fingertips. If you’re unsure as to the spelling of something, you can check. If you’re adopting an American English style guide, you can validate the American spelling of “artefact”. And you can see what other people think about different from/than/to. The internet offers a wealth of documentation, official and otherwise, helping you improve the document you’re working on.

But the potential for research goes further than this. Way further. Almost every element of a document can be checked now that the internet’s to hand.

In recent documents, we’ve corrected people’s own addresses on their CVs and cover letters. I kid you not. The Royal Mail’s postcode checker allows us to do that in a jiffy. We’ve checked and corrected people’s job titles using LinkedIn, only where appropriate, mind. We’ve corrected the names of hospitals in documents written by those hospitals’ management. And we’ve corrected the product numbers of obscure Cisco routers that appear 180,000 words into a 187,000-word document. I tell you, that was a wonderful feeling!

Now this is the extra mile. We pride ourselves on ensuring that every aspect of a document that can be checked by us is checked by us. We strive to find those wrong postcodes, those wrong product codes and those subtly wrong hospital names. We strive and we thrive on this.

Clients are quite often mesmerised by some of the errors we correct. And I think that’s why they so regularly come back for more.

Posted by Dan, 9 January, 2013 under Life

Eleven days; 119,754 words; 31,587 changes

Last month, one of our biggest clients forewarned us of a proofreading project coming up in late February.

At the time, they indicated it would be around 25,000 words, “with a few other documents in the mix”.

Even when the documents started coming through a week last Thursday, we weren’t fully aware of the scale of this project, the deadline for which was today (eleven days in total).

All told, the client delivered 34 documents, with a total word count of 119,754.

Not knowing the full scale of the job meant that it was a difficult project to resource. I knew we’d need two people, and there was a possibility that we’d need a third.

In some respects, having it split into 34 documents makes a job like this easier. Having the work split up into bite-size chunks gives lower-level milestones against which progress can be measured, and more easily allows the work to be divided between different proofreaders. A single 120,000-word document might have been more daunting. But each document was written by a different set of authors, each with their own style, their own idiosyncrasies, their own types of mistake.

The last week has meant some very late nights for three people, myself included. But the last document was sent to the client on schedule this morning.

The highlight for me was spotting that the product number for an obscure piece of hardware was missing a letter. My hope is that this change alone will astound the client at the level of rigour we apply to the task. (Google means that anything and everything can be checked.) The lowlight was undoubtedly my overwriting a 2,000-word proofread document on the final evening. Huge thanks to Steve for stepping in to re-review it to save my addled brain, which was barely running on empty at the time.

It was a marvellous team effort. I’m hugely indebted to Steve and Paul for their extraordinary efforts on this one. They’ve been instrumental to the success of this project.

Now, hopefully some respite before the next big project arrives.

Posted by Dan, 27 February, 2012 under Life

The introduction of the asterisk

As a proofreader, many would think that I’m averse to changes in language. But I’m not. I welcome change. While I’m not one to fully embrace txtspk, there are certain features that I enjoy and adopt.

The asterisk is one such feature. I use it in two contexts.

First, I use it to emphasise.

To quote Chandler in Friends, “could this *be* any more lame?” Underlining is now largely frowned upon given its use in hyperlinks; and bold is considered harsh. Italics has various other uses (see Friends earlier in this paragraph), and so the asterisks are a welcome addition.

I wouldn’t use them in an overly formal letter, but I regularly use them in relatively formal work-related emails. And I admit, part of me does so to invite question.

Second, I use it to indicate an action.

This one is used in online conversations to indicate what you’re doing, usually in a non-factual way. *puts kettle on* or *puts on loungin’ pants*. It’s used to evoke a sense of what you might be doing in response to some preceding comment in the conversation.

Oddly, even though it’s a reference to the first person, yourself, it’s always phrased without the subject, yet in the third person. A bit like Jimmy in Seinfeld.

I wouldn’t write this in work emails, except in an informal manner to people more savvy in Twitter and txtspk. In the main, I’d save this for a Facebook conversation or a Twitter retort.

Posted by Dan, 28 January, 2012 under Life

Grammatical renegades

There are three types of shop.

There are the grammatical stalwarts, clinging to the apostrophe in their Men’s, Women’s and Children’s departments, no doubt seething at the lacking punctuation in Menswear and the like.

There are the grammatical heathens, with signs directing you to the Childrens’ Department or the Womens’ Toilets, but correctly to the Men’s Shoes. Inconsistency abounds.

And finally, there are the grammatical renegades. These are the ones that have actively shunned the awkward apostrophe that sits within departments’ signage, but that have done so consistently, resolutely and boldly.

Clarks is a good example of the latter. You won’t find a single apostrophe on their website. Their departments are Boys, Girls, Mens, Womens. It’s clear that they’ve made an active choice to shun it, possibly for SEO reasons, possibly for typographical beauty and neatness, likely a combination of the two.

And while it may grate at first, I have to respect them for the decision. The fact that it is an active decision makes it admirable. They know what they’re doing, and they know that it’s technically wrong, but they’re pushing forward regardless, on the basis that life without it will be easier than that with it. Just as Waterstone’s announced last week.

(The slight awkwardness comes when branding meets the written word. Their marketing emails talk of savings on men’s boots, with graphics advertising great savings on mens styles.)

Notwithstanding, as long as people know what they’re doing, I’m all for a bold move like this. It’s the grammatical heathens that you’ve got to worry about.

Posted by Dan, 21 January, 2012 under Life

How to apply for a proofreading post

You’re no doubt reading this post because you’ve seen we’re always looking for new talent; fresh eyes to peruse the documents that we receive and polish them like they’ve never been polished before. You’re interested in what makes us tick, and which buttons to push to ensure that your own application makes its way to the top of the pile.

You’re in luck, because here’s some advice for those looking for work in this arena, specifically with osirra: mistakes in your application are not an option.

You see, we operate in a line of work where we correct mistakes. We correct mistakes in the written word. So if we at osirra stumble upon a CV or a covering letter that contains mistakes, we aren’t going to look upon it too favourably. In fact, we’ll probably think that if you make mistakes like this in your application, there’s nothing to stop you allowing similar mistakes through in reviewing our clients’ work.

If you apply for a proof reading position, we’re likely to bin your application in favour of someone applying for a proofreading position. If your salutation is to Mr. Ossira, we’d much rather this was spelt with a solitary S and a couple of Rs, consistent with the logo at the top of our website. And if you sign that same application off with “Yours faithfully”, then please include your home address to allow us to hang, draw and quarter you.

If you were applying for a position as a bricklayer, then where/whether you put an apostrophe in the word “its” matters not one jot. (We’re not currently recruiting any bricklayers, by the way, but if that changes, you’ll be the first to know.)

But the people we work with are of a certain ilk. We have a passion for detail. We adore finding errant apostrophes; a customer compliant (where a complaint would be more logical); incorrectly-spelled hospital names in the Black Country; and even executives’ names spelt incorrectly, something that the writer should rightly know better than we do.

We’re passionate about content. We’re passionate about researching where we’re not quite sure. And we’re passionate about getting things right.

Don’t get me wrong: we all make mistakes. I’ve sent emails that I’ve looked back on months after the event that contain howling typos that scream at you when read cold. But here’s the important thing: I’ve never done so when applying for a proofreading position. Such applications are unique in their self-referential quality.

So please, before you submit your CV or hit send on a covering email, stop. Read it again. And again. Send it to a similar-minded friend to proofread on your behalf. And read it again. Make sure it’s absolutely watertight before it reaches us. Because anything less simply won’t do.

Posted by Dan, 7 January, 2012 under Life

Proofreading: pedantry is everything

I advertise this site through the likes of Google AdWords. Most of the interest generated is for the services that we offer. But occasionally, someone will email me out of the blue asking whether we’re recruiting, either on a permanent or freelance basis, and offering their own services.

Given the services we offer, I expect these latter emails to be flawless—if you can’t get your own, short emails right, then what confidence do I have that you can do the same for one of our clients?

I recently received such a request, consisting of six lines of content, together with a salutation and valediction.  Below were the errors I picked up:

  • The Dear Sir/Madam did not come with a corresponding Yours faithfully.  Harsh in today’s less formal world, but a tradition that should be upheld, for the time being, at least.
  • Proofreader was sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not.
  • The Oxford comma was used in one instance, but not in another.
  • The lady used quotation marks around words not warranting them, much like an annoying person might sign visually in a bar conversation.  E.g. “[you] would, naturally, take a ‘cut'”.
  • A spaced, single hyphen had been used instead of an em dash before a separated clause.

I politely pointed out some of these issues to the lady, that she might be more successful in looking for other work.  She refuted many of them, the worst defence being that her keyboard didn’t do em dashes.  (Yes it does: ALT+0151.)

Now some of the issues I raised may sound pedantic.  But given the subject matter, pedantry is essential.  Our reputation is founded on attention to detail, picking up issues that our clients don’t spot but which their clients may smart at.

Posted by Dan, 6 February, 2010 under Life

Should of vs. should have

I have a couple of well-educated ex-colleagues who shall remain nameless who, in the written form, have started using the phrase should of, in the following context:

Mum should of gone to Iceland.

I must stress that this is not the actual phrase they used.  They used more business-like phrases.  But you get the picture.

Speech has always influenced the development of written language.  But the world we now live in is made up of people whose English education is often, at best, questionable—people who, even if educated appropriately to suspect a mistake, have neither the time nor the inclination to search for the truth.  This means that mistakes like that above will become increasingly prevalent with time, which is a shame.

The correct construct is:

Mum should have gone to Iceland.

Or indeed:

Mum really shouldn’t have gone to Iceland.  Especially now that they’ve fired Kerry Katona.

Posted by Dan, 4 November, 2009 under Grammar | Life

Tenet, tennent and tenor

Yesterday I heard three different words used to mean the same thing—two of them wrongly.

The word that everyone was reaching for was tenet.  And although one person correctly used the word, his colleagues used tennent and tenor.

And their repeated use of the incorrect variants was such that I was forced to question my own confidence that tenet was indeed the correct variant.  It is.

Posted by Dan, 22 September, 2009 under Grammar | Life

Out of orifice emails

The Outlook interface for creating and editing your out-of-office email response is dreadful. In Outlook 2007, it constitutes a text-box four lines high, maybe 350 pixels wide for entering raw, unformatted text. Keep typing and you’ll get a vertical scrollbar.

And the interface does not allow for spell-checking.

The dreadfully constrained interface and the lack of a spell-checker make for out-of-office emails littered with typos and grammatical heathenry, an email that is sent to way more people than any other.  I would estimate that over half of those I receive contain at least one error.

Today’s examples:

  • I am out of the office until Friday 22nd May and will limited access my emails during this time
  • I am out of the office at a and will be back at work on the 26th May 2009

Please.  Copy your email into Word.  Read it, check it and double-check it before turning your out of office on.  Thank you.

Posted by Dan, 21 May, 2009 under Grammar | Life

Carriage return, line feed

I read with interest and some amusement today’s news of Luc Costermans breaking the world blind road speed record.

My favourite part of the article was the paragraph-hungry BBC’s decision to separate these two sentences into two paragraphs.

Two years ago Mr Costermans completed a tour of France piloting a light aeroplane.

He was accompanied by an instructor and a navigator.

Surely the second sentence is a sufficient qualification of the first to negate the need for the carriage return, line feed.

Posted by Dan, 11 October, 2008 under Grammar | Life

Ben Dirs: crimes against the apostrophe

During the BBC’s online Olympic coverage this morning, there was the following update at 10.45:

1045: And we’re off – Sarah Stevenson versus Maria del Rosario Espinoza of Mexico. Can the Doncaster lass keep her head while all around her are losing theres’? The 20-year-old Mexican is the current world middleweight champion, a title she won in Beijing last year.

Fortunately, they “corrected” it quickly to:

1045: And we’re off – Sarah Stevenson versus Maria del Rosario Espinoza of Mexico. Can the Doncaster lass keep her head while all around her are losing theirs’? The 20-year-old Mexican is the current world middleweight champion, a title she won in Beijing last year.

A couple of heinous errors from Ben Dirs, whose name is itself a stroke of genius.

Posted by Dan, 23 August, 2008 under Grammar | Life

‘I have never ended on an unstressed syllable!’

A fabulous article articulating the tension between journalists and sub-editors in the newspaper industry. Lots of sweariness, some beautiful humour and some artistically-crafted, unedited prose. Well worth a read.

Posted by Dan, 25 July, 2008 under Grammar | Life

Is that shoe pastry?

A wonderful miscorrection of the Economist by Stephen J. Dubner on his Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website.

In the extract below from the Economist’s London Stock Exchange index, he suggests that pasty should read pastry.

“In the hills north east of Mexico City it is not uncommon to find Cornish pasties for sale.”

Some research needed before you go correcting people, Stephen.

Posted by Dan, 8 July, 2008 under Grammar | Life

The Link’s effect

Lynx’s latest campaign tells us men that “Its good to mix things up”. Punctuation included, it seems.


The above screenshot from the Lynx website has addressed the error, albeit with the apostrophe quite clearly added as an afterthought; the TV is yet to catch up. It reminds me of Cadbury’s Creme Egg slogan, which temporarily read “How do you eat your’s?”

Posted by Dan, 5 May, 2008 under Grammar | Life


I’ve recently started working on a project in which apostrophes are second-class citizens. In communications, they crop up where they shouldn’t, and they are distinctly lacking where they rightfully belong. The apostrophisation (Look it up! Actually, please don’t) or otherwise of its is a lottery, seemingly unconnected with context; an agenda is pluralised with an errant apostrophe, yet people in possession of stuff are merely pluralised.

Maybe my concern of 1998 that the apostrophe is a dying punctuation mark is coming true. But maybe not, given that it’s cropping up in places it shouldn’t. Hopefully my voting it one of the seven wonders of the modern world two years back will keep its profile sufficiently high to fight off its mis-use, and promote its place in our documents, below the @ sign on our UK keyboards, and below the in the US. Long may it reign.

Posted by Dan, 1 May, 2008 under Grammar | Life

King’s Cross

King’s Cross is slowly becoming Kings Cross. More and more establishments, some of them well-respected, are ignoring what I assume is the ownership of the cross by the King, deciding instead to imply an anger shared by a whole host of kings.

The recent movement of the King’s Cross Thameslink connection to St. Pancras has prompted whatever company is responsible to erect associated, apostrophe-free signage diverting its customers accordingly. I genuinely believe the trend is down to ignorance rather than defiance.

It will be another bitter blow to punctuation if and when London Underground adopts the trend, removing the apostrophe from the blue bar across its logo. I’m confident that this move is a long way off.


Posted by Dan, 6 March, 2008 under Grammar | Life