Why bother? The value of proofreading

23 Mar

A while ago, I asked people what they’d like to see me writing about. One that came up there, and has come up since, and before, and whenever I mention I’m a proofreader/copyeditor, is … “why bother?” Why can’t people just express themselves however they want, with whatever spelling, grammar and punctuation they fancy?

I have to state my own view here; that’s all I can do. And furnish some examples, many drawn from a discussion I had with peers in the copyediting business, on a forum to which I belong. I fall in between the prescriptive and descriptive camps when it comes to spellings, grammar, etc. and their (inevitable) changes. I glory in new words and word-formations (I’ve been slightly obsessed with the -gate suffix for more years than I care to recall) and I find it fascinating to see how language changes with time. I don’t think it should be fixed, nailed down and not allowed to change. But I still care deeply about clarity and precision of expression. And, in my opinion, if you don’t know the rules and how to apply them, if you don’t *care* about the rules and how to apply them, then the clarity of what you’re expressing can easily be lost, and your meaning may not come across as you intend it to.

Please note, I am not criticising those who don’t know the rules, or have difficulty applying them. How could I, when my own clients include people whose English is not their first (or second, or third) language, dyslexic people, people who’ve not been taught at school or college how the rules work. I like a laugh at a dodgy shop sign as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t point out those things publicly in this blog, or ever want to make people feel I’m mocking them. But if you are not sure what to put or how to write it, there are reference materials all over the place, and people like me and my colleagues, who can help out.

So, some examples (thanks again to the Copyediting-List folks for providing some of them)

— A purple people-eater is purple and eats people, but a purple-people eater eats only the purple ones.

— Here’s a fascinating link showing the importance of word order:

— Here’s an example of how important language is in the legal field. And it’s not just in the legal field – while many students are not marked down for grammar and punctuation these days, a friend who lectures in speech and language therapy does, as a mistake in someone’s notes can cause many problems down the line.

— On a similar note, haven’t we all got colleagues or other people we communicate with who may not have great written language skills? Doesn’t it devalue their opinions a little in your mind, when everyone’s laughing at the latest email or sign?

— This is a long one, but it shows the importance of punctuation!

Dear Jim:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?

Dear Jim:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

— Capitalisation matters too, in this great example from Andy Mabbett:

One area of capitalisation that divides even experts in the field is around species names. There are many types of black-headed gulls, and lots of little gulls, but only one species called Black-headed Gull (and it has a brown head!) and one species of Little Gull. Consider:

“Is that black-headed gull a black-headed gull?”

“No, that’s a little gull. The little gull on the railing is a black-headed gull.”


“Is that black-headed gull a Black-headed Gull?”

“No, that’s a Little Gull. The little gull on the railing is a Black-headed Gull.”

— A classic: Let’s eat Grandma!/Let’s eat, grandma!

— Lynne Truss did well out of this one: Eats, shoots, and leaves/Eats shoots and leaves.

— This one comes in various forms and with various names… I would like to thank my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.

Publishers and other purveyors of words have style guides, academic departments ask their students to reference books read in a certain way, and proofreaders and copyeditors (and copy writers) use reference materials such as the ones I’ve discussed before, to make sure that what they produce is clear and consistent. We do this, I think, on behalf of the reader, so they’re not distracted by mistakes, howlers and inconsistencies. My aim in my work is to help the writer express themselves clearly and accurately, so their readers can read their texts simply and easily, using their brainpower and concentration to absorb the concepts of the text at hand, or just enjoy a work of fiction without having to puzzle over the word the author meant to use.

So – why bother? Do you think I should? Do you think we should? And have I answered the question?


Tags: , , , ,

10 responses to “Why bother? The value of proofreading

  1. Jane

    March 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Excellent post. As for publicising badly written signs etc, hmmmm. I see these all the time, and am often tempted to photograph them for my blog, but I don’t. I suppose I feel as you do, that it is perhaps not entirely fair. I do though draw attention to poorly written and proof read books and other publications. I get a lot of these to review, and some (generally the self-published) are achingly bad. What I review is mostly children’s literature. It should be correct. Children tend to assume what is printed is right, and we are not doing them any favours by letting them think sloppiness is ok, and that as long as they mean well, it’s ok to get things wrong. Not if it’s going to be published, and if the author is expecting people to hand over cash for it.

    So, to answer your question, yes, it does matter. We might not like it particularly, but those who can’t punctuate, spell or use grammar correctly are not going to get on as well (on the whole) as those who can. To pretend otherwise is inverse snobbery and is unkind and patronising.


    • libroediting

      March 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      Thank you, Jane – and glad you liked the post. I always mention in my review if a book is badly copy-edited (or if it’s been done well) as I think it’s more than one person’s responsibility to get that right, including the publisher, who shouldn’t represent themselves and their authors in that way.


  2. Jen

    March 23, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Interesting post Liz, and I am inclined to agree – I definitely do find reading ‘published’ material which is badly spelt or punctuated, or with other (to me) glaring errors and inconsistencies very distracting and annoying.

    I’m much more forgiving of emails, facebook statuses etc though where I find typos can be very endearing and amusing!

    Now just to check this comment very carefully before posting it …


  3. Gill

    March 23, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Yes, we must bother, both you as a professional and we as amateurs! I honestly don’t go nit-picking to prove my superiority – all the errors just jump out at me.

    As an aside, our degree programme was re-validated today. The panel couldn’t really find anything wrong with it, but they did manage to dredge up 2 conditions for indefinite approval. One was that we had to correct the pagination on one of the documents. Just shows how important is the attention to detail.


  4. AnnabelleB

    March 24, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Great post, Liz. I’m with you on this one – a bit of flexibility to allow for new idioms, words and phrases…but underpinned by rules of grammar and syntax which are, after all, there for a reason. I love your ‘Dear Jim’ example!


  5. kristobaldude

    April 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I just wanted to say the “Dear Jim” example was very intriguing. As a programmer I found my mind starting to analyzing, and found certain analogies to palindromes. I’m not completly left-brained, so I can precisely describe what’s similar, I only know for sure it is enigmatic. Actually, I think I have it: The main similarity is that when one observes or reads a “Dear Jim” type example, or a palindrome, the question comes to mind “Neat … but, how did they ever come up with that in the first place?”


    • Liz at Libro

      April 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm

      Indeed – I find it challenging to come up with the examples for my Troublesome Pairs, let alone something as long and complex as that!


  6. CodeSlayer2010

    April 8, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    BTW: I found this post because I was searching for experiential proof and testimonials from others to verify my hypothesis that’s “proofreading” feature is the culprit responsible for messing up pasted in preformatted code. It is also a high possibility for me that Zemana may be responsible for adding crap to my preformatted PHP code. And finally, a third possibility is that “htmlscript=’true'” needs to be in the tag.

    I have more research to do on this subject and Google had told me that your site might have the proof I was looking for but, I have not found it. It did enjoy your post however and I have bookmarked your blog.

    – CodeSlayer2010


    • Liz at Libro

      April 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm

      Ah, well – thank you Google for sending me another reader!



I love hearing from my readers - do please leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: