How To Proof Proper, Innit

Posted by Dan | Posted in Pedantry | Posted on 07-11-2013



Freshly-ground-black-peopleProofreading matters. For anyone who doubts that let me bring your attention to the PR nightmare that followed Penguin’s publication of The Pasta Bible. –>

But proofreading isn’t as simple as just clicking on spell check. Here are some rules to help you when proofreading stuff:

The Golden Rule — The role of punctuation is to make writing easier to understand

This is the overarching rule which trumps all others. Don’t add punctuation just for the hell of it; as soon as punctuation hinders — rather than assists — a reader’s understanding, it needs to go. Occasionally you are allowed to break traditional rules in the name of this über rule (examples below).

Rule #1 — Is it clear and does it make sense? If so, leave it alone. (If not, fix it with punctuation)

grandmotherWe’ll start with an easy one:

“Let’s eat Grandma.”

While the spelling’s fine, this sentence could be read in two different ways: they’re either suggesting to their grandmother that it’s dinner time, or proposing cannibalism. A little bit of punctuation is often all you need to remove ambiguity.

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”


Now consider you’re proofreading the following sentence:

“I work at a sign building factory. My department produce neon letters and I oversee production of all the as and us. On occasion I also oversee production of whole words, often welcomes and casinos.”

According to your high school English teacher that sentence is grammatically correct. However you probably needed to read it twice and consider the context before it fully made sense. This is one of those rare cases where the Golden Rule allows us to break a traditional rule (in this case “never use an apostrophe to denote a plural”) because without punctuation the sentence is harder to understand.

“I work at a sign building factory. My department produce neon letters and I oversee production of all the a’s and u’s. On occasion I also oversee production of whole words, often welcome’s and casino’s.”

Alternatively you could use capitalisation to gain the clarity. However this doesn’t always work.

“I work at a sign building factory. My department produce neon letters and I oversee production of all the As and Us. On occasion I also oversee production of whole words, often WELCOMEs and CASINOs.”

Rule #2 — Consistency is key

Is it “learned” or “learnt”? Should I add a full stop after bullet points? Should I write “dos and don’ts” or “do’s and don’t’s”? Is it one or two spaces after a full stop?


The short answer is it doesn’t matter. Hop on Google and you’ll find no shortage of debate on these topics, but that’s all it is: debate. However one thing that is a certainty is that inconsistency looks awful. Just pick one and stick to it (Ctrl+F can be helpful here).

Rule #3 — Use Google

If you’re unsure of a word or phrase just type it into Google to see how to spell or use it. You should always Google names (including names of products, brands, businesses, etc.); Bridget Bardot and Jimmy Hendrix may look right but Google will quickly inform you otherwise.

Rule #4 — Use spell check

I know I said “proofreading isn’t as simple as just clicking on spell check” and it certainly isn’t perfect, but neglecting to use it is just asking for trouble. Spell checkers are not limited to word processors: every modern web browser and software package has one. I’ve seen a number of basic typos, particularly from people using software like InDesign, which would have been picked up by the built-in spell checker had they only bothered to run it before publishing. [Contrary to popular belief, InDesign does have a spell checker.]

Just remember to configure your spell checker’s dictionary to your local language (a lot of people in the UK seem to never bother changing it from US spelling).

ibeforeeRule #5 — Don’t cling to antiquated rules (or unreliable rhymes)

“I before E except after C.”

“Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.” (A word like “but” or “and”.)

When writing, editing or proofing, always remember rule #1: stuff needs to be clear and make sense. Communicating your message is more important than following rules of grammar which are always evolving and often somewhat flawed (I stopped trusting “I before E except after C” as soon as English was over and we had to pick up our science books). Instead of trying to research and abide by every single rule of grammar (sometimes at the expense of the writing) put that effort into quashing ambiguity and making things easy to read.

The reason I’ll jump down your throat if you confuse “you’re” and “your” is because they have totally different meanings and can drastically alter what is being said. Whereas if you confuse “less” and “fewer”, while I will still growl a bit, I am far more forgiving because the two words have very similar definitions so it’s much less likely to cause confusion.


While they’re not quite as poetic as I before E, I’ve written a list of rules to help avoid common spelling errors in the second half of this post.

Read Commonly Confused English Words And Stuff.

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