We all make mistakes in everyday speech or writing. Even if we are otherwise competent, even articulate, users of English with no speech or language disorders, we experience slips of the tongue or accidentally misspell a word we are familiar with, perhaps because we are tired, drunk, distracted or simply not concentrating.  However, the human brain has a remarkable capacity to understand language and the listener or reader will often automatically correct what was actually said or written to what the speaker or writer intended to say, because that usually makes the most sense in context.  If my friend says, ‘That’s an impoitant point,’ (meaning ‘important’, anticipating the ‘oi’ vowel in ‘point’), I will know she meant to say ‘important’ and I may not even realise her mistake.

A quick demonstration

This was demonstrated by a chain email that was popular several years ago, which read:

“Aoccdrnig to rseearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pcleas. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by ilstef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

(“According to research at an English university, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, only that the first and last letters are at the right place.  The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.  This is because we do not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole.”)

The origins of this email probably owe more to the internet than to rigorous neurolinguistic research, but it is true that it is possible to read the sentence without too much difficulty.  The brain focuses on the first and last letters and automatically fills in what the most appropriate word would be.

Mistakes are easy to make

Given that we have this ability, it is relatively easy to make mistakes in written texts and not notice it, which is why texts destined for publication are thoroughly proof-read several times.  Even then some errors slip through, especially in newspapers and magazines, which work to a very tight schedule.  However, any piece of writing that will be read by other people represents the individual or organisation who produced it and if a reader sees they have not noticed or corrected their errors it creates a negative impression.  It is therefore vital to proof-read any document intended for a wider audience in order to appear professional and to show the pride you take in your work.

The skill of proofreading

The proof-reader’s skill is in being able to ‘turn off’ this automatic instinct to see the correct words and instead to focus on what is actually there.  This is a demanding task which requires serious concentration and attention to detail.  Most proof-readers would be able to read eight to 12 A4 pages in an hour.

Some misspellings are obvious (‘oredr’ instead of ‘order’, for instance), but sometimes the mistake might result in a correct word.  A computer spellchecker or somebody quickly scanning a page for unfamiliar words would not pick up ‘causal’ as a mistake, but if the intended word was ‘casual’ it could make a big difference to the meaning of the sentence.  As well as spotting non-words, a proof-reader would also be poised to check for common mistakes such as that and for common grammatical errors such as confusion over ‘they’re’, ‘there’ and ‘their’ or ‘where’ and ‘wear’.

The proof-reader also needs to ensure consistency where there is more than one way of writing something correctly.  ‘Judgment’ and ‘judgement’ are both acceptable English spellings, but usage should be uniform throughout a text.  This also applies to capitalisations (‘prime minister’ or ‘Prime Minister’), compound words (‘well known’ or ‘well-known’) and abbreviations and acronyms (‘OPEC’ or ‘Opec’).

At the sentence level, it is possible to miss words out or repeat them accidentally and a proof-reader needs to be alert to this.  At the whole text level, formatting is another area where proof-readers are expected to spot errors.  They must make sure, for example, that margins, fonts, headings, indentations, spacing and citations are consistent throughout.

Why proofreading is vital

It is therefore vital that a proof-reader not only has very high standards of spelling, grammar and punctuation, but also possesses an eagle eye for mistakes and inconsistencies and the ability to remember details and a methodical, meticulous approach to correcting errors.  The sort of concentration needed to be good at proof-reading is very different from normal reading, even reading carefully.  The proof-reader must work with the same intensity and focus throughout, be as able to spot a misplaced comma or a superfluous plural after reading for four hours as they were when they started and overcome the human instinct to correct mistakes without noticing them.