Proofreading in English: typical mistakes and what professional proofreaders and editors look out for

Proofreading / Editing

Nowadays, the English language plays a major role in many areas of our lives. Students write their seminar papers, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral theses in English, agencies produce English marketing material for their sometimes international audience, lawyers conduct English correspondence with their international clients (and these are just a few areas). It is therefore no surprise that editing and proofreading services that specialize in proofreading English texts are in greater demand today than ever before. At the same time, the rise of digital content has changed the way people read and write. This means that the errors that today’s English proofreaders and editors are looking for are also different. Likewise, especially in marketing, the way writing is supposed to be done has changed. So some of the “rules” you think you know may no longer apply. So what kind of mistakes do proofreaders, proofreaders, and editors look for in the digital age?

Spelling mistakes and typos – Advanced proofreading 1

Let’s start with the most obvious and common mistakes. At the top of the list of proofreaders’ and editors’ tasks is weeding out spelling and typing errors that have crept into the content of English texts. Most people, professional proofreaders included, find it difficult to have to proofread their own work. This is because we often end up seeing only what we want to see, and when proofreading, we often overlook basic errors that others immediately notice. This makes typos one of the biggest problems in self-editing and one of the most important functions of a*professional proofreader.

Incorrect word usage – advanced proofreading 2

This is where the English language can be a bit complicated – even for native speakers. For example, are you sure you are using the words affect and effect correctly? Or if you know the different usage of practise and practice? Are you sure you didn’t confuse license and licence in your text? These are some classic verb vs. noun variations in the English language that can confuse people. If you have your text, bachelor thesis or email professionally proofread, you will save yourself a lot of time. Because the eyes of professional proofreaders are trained for exactly these mistakes. You will be surprised how many mistakes are hidden in your text – even after using a word processor! There are many more tricky word pairs that you might want to Google before your next proofreading:

Advice – advise

Bear – bare

Compliment – complement

Elicit – illicit

Further – farther

Hoard – horde

Hanged – hung

Metre – meter

One could go on forever, but it should now be clear enough what we are talking about. Although these word pairs have different meanings, they keep popping up as mistakes when writing in English. The annoying thing is that even if you know the difference between the word pairs, it’s easy to type the wrong word when you’re in a hurry (typo alert!) and you often don’t notice the mistake because the words look so similar. Attentive proofreading is required to eliminate all errors and, of course, this applies to any kind of text – be it the master’s thesis, an advertising slogan, an email or a newspaper article. When in doubt, and especially when it comes to important texts, be sure to give your text to a native-speaking professional for proofreading.

Grammatical confusion – advanced proofreading 3

Mixing up similar words is one thing, but basic grammar confusion can be really embarrassing. That’s why you shouldn’t overlook the following classic but awkward examples when proofreading.

There – their – they’re

Your – you’re

Were – we’re

Whose – who’s

It’s – its

Then – than

Another big mistake is the incorrect use of apostrophes. For example, teacher’s and teachers’ in possessive sentences. It looks even nastier when you use apostrophes for plural nouns: CEO’s instead of CEOs. Of course, we all make these kinds of mistakes when we type quickly. But it’s unforgivable when these grammatical errors creep into your published work. So, again, if you’re not sure whether your text is ready for publication, seek the advice of an expert English-language proofreader or editor. They will be able to determine how much work it will take for them to proofread your text. This, of course, will determine his or her offer for proofreading and whether you want to accept it.

Subject-verb agreement – advanced proofreading 4

Subjects and verbs must “agree” numerically with each other – either singular or plural. Example:

Your main goal over the years has been customer satisfaction.

Your main goals this year have been achieved.

Now this is still a fairly simple example, but with more complex topics you often get bogged down. Here it is worth taking a close look when proofreading.

The board of directors is planning a meeting next Thursday.

This is my favorite pair of shoes.

The police are looking for her.

The last example is interesting because police can be singular, but in most cases it is plural. As for brand names (for example, Instagram) are to use one of the singular and the following verb should match it (for example, Instagram is…). There are also nouns that can be singular or plural in either case, such as staff (employees), where both plural and singular work, grammatically speaking. As you can see, proofreading English texts is quite a challenge, especially for non-native English-speaking authors and readers. Some things don’t seem logical and self-explanatory from a German perspective, such as the use of the third person plural for police. English proofreaders and editors, on the other hand, will notice such errors right away.

The Gray Areas of Writing “Rules” – Advanced Proofreading 5

All the points that have been considered so far are indisputable rules of the English language that must be kept in mind when proofreading English texts. However, there are a lot of gray areas in the English language, and editors or proofreaders have to make some difficult decisions – including when to break supposed “rules”. For example, modern English texts tend to omit a large number of commas that should be placed.

The reason for omitting commas is to improve the flow and readability of the content, and this philosophy has bent the rules of punctuation to a fairly large extent. The same is true for some grammar rules. Take the verb to dream, which should be dreamt (British English) conjugated in the past tense. However, the use of dreamed in this case is now accepted as standard usage in British English. If there is such a thing as rules in language, they are always subject to change. This change has been quite gradual in the past, but – like most things in the digital age – the pace of change has increased dramatically. So today’s editors and proofreaders (not to mention authors) have to keep up with a faster kind of language evolution. This is especially true for English, which is currently being used (and thus changed!) by more people than ever before.

Consistency is the key – Advanced Proofreading 6

In some ways, this rapid evolution makes writing easier – in the sense that the guidelines (or rules, if you will) are less strict. However, there is also a problem with this. Loose guidelines make it harder to make decisions when proofreading English texts because you have no framework to fall back on.

Should you leave out the comma or not? Ask this of two different editors or proofreaders and you might get two different answers to this question. Even the word “proofreader” is controversial in English (proofreader? proof reader? proof-reader?). Great conditions for professional proofreading of your English text, right?

But that’s a fact you have to accept when creating content in today’s world. The best thing you can do is make your decision and stick with it. Consistency is key, because no one wants to see you use voiceover in one sentence and voice over in the next, even if both are theoretically possible and correct. This kind of brand consistency is an absolute priority for proofreaders, even if it means making some difficult decisions.

3 thoughts on “Proofreading in English: typical mistakes and what professional proofreaders and editors look out for”

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