Proofreading courses, such as my own No-Nonsense Proofreading Course, will teach you how to proofread.
But there are lots of things that proofreading courses don’t teach you. My own proofreading course concentrates on method and technique as well as how to acquire proofreading assignments, testimonials and establish your own proofreading business. I did, however, leave a few things out in the interest of keeping things tightly focused and relevant. You can think of these topics as the scenes that end up on the cutting room floor when a movie is being edited. So, rather like the deleted scenes that turn up on a DVD release, here they are for your consideration and enjoyment.
Proofreading Course Deleted Scene One
Proofreader etiquette is a very simple thing. In fact, it can be summed-up in just two little words:
During my time as an Operations Manager at Shop Direct Home Shopping Limited, I had to hire a number of proofreaders. Some of these guys were old school proof readers and had been interrogating and signing proofs since not long after they’d made the transition from short trousers to long.
Others however, were a little green around the gills and had been hired on the basis of their enthusiasm, attention to detail and sound command of the English language. These ‘young guns’, once they’d been around for a while and had made themselves comfortable, without fail, made the same schoolboy error.
At some point, they came across a spelling error or grammatical gaffe so outrageous that they just couldn’t resist the urge to make an issue of it. They would make a sarcastic comment in the margin or show the shameful blunder to their colleagues or even take the offending proof to the clanger’s originator and warm their hands on the glow from their blushing cheeks.
Firstly, this is just plain rude. We’re only human. We make mistakes. All of us. That’s why we have proof readers. Really, as a proofreader, you ought to be praising the sheer fallibility of humankind. Without it, you’d be out of a job.
Secondly, what goes around comes around. We're only human. We make mistakes. All of us. Including proofreaders. And God help the gloating proof reader who, in a moment of lapsed concentration, allows even the tiniest error to slip through his or her fingers.
I’ve actually seen people queue for an opportunity to indulge in a little counter-gloating.
Proofreading Course Deleted Scene Two
Proofreaders, Beware! Post-It Notes are Dangerous!
Don't get me wrong, I love Post-It notes.
Arthur Fry and Spenser Silver, I salute you!
Whilst Post-It notes are perfect for leaving messages on desks, fridges, peoples’ foreheads and just about anywhere else, they are not the proofreader’s friend. It’s easy to be fooled into believing they are just that – the proofreader’s friend – because they make pretty good bookmarks, which gives them credibility as a literary accessory.
They should not, ever, be used to pass on instructions to an author, typesetter or page make-up artist.
And you can blame Mr. Silver for this one, if you feel so inclined. The adhesive created by Spenser Silver is intentionally low-tack. Which means Post-It notes can be peeled off, reapplied, peeled off, reapplied... It also means, of course, that Post-It Notes have a tendency to fall off.
I know why Post-It Notes are employed as instruction-delivery systems from proofreader to author. They’re really useful (or seem really useful) when proofreading a piece of artwork, say a double-page spread of a magazine, where there’s very little room to write comments and queries.
But you must resist. If those little yellow stickies drop off, your amends will never reach their destination. Or worse, the Post-It Note could drop off and be reapplied in the wrong place, assigning your remarks to an entirely different sentence or paragraph. Who knows what chaos could result from an incident like that?
My advice? Either use a separate sheet of paper for queries (appropriately labelled) or use fully-adhesive white labels, the kind you use to label-up envelopes and packages.
I love Post-It Notes. I really do. Except when I’m proofreading.
Proofreading Course Deleted Scene Three
Proofreading Isn't All About Spelling Errors and Grammatical Gaffes
If anyone ever asks you what a proof reader does, for heaven’s sake don’t start talking about spelling mistakes and grammatical errors right off the mark. You’ll see their eyes glaze over in under a minute and they’ll do that stretching-mouth, flaring-nostrils thing which means they’re yawning but they don’t want to hurt your feelings so they’re trying to kind of seal it in.
Do you remember that scene in Dead Poets’ Society when Robin Williams as John Keating asks his class for which single endeavor language was developed? He receives the unimaginative answer of “To communicate” and swiftly counters with, “No! To woo women!”
Well, the ‘what does a proof reader do’ question should be tackled in pretty much the same way. That isn’t to say we proofread in order to dazzle the opposite sex (although, why not? Why not?), but it most certainly is about more than just spelling errors and grammatical blunders.
We proofread to spare blushes. We proofread to protect our employers and clients from embarrassment.
Let’s take a look at the kind of embarrassment, in fact the sheer humiliation which the strategic deployment of an effective proof reader would quickly have nipped in the bud.
In December of last year, a school teacher spotted a spelling error on Monmouthshire Council’s recycling bags. The instruction to ‘separate’ various materials for recycling purposes was printed as ‘seperate’.
An easy mistake to make, and not an uncommon one. Hardly humiliating, you might think.
However, the teacher in question, Helen Pritchard, took the recycling bag to her class at Llanvihangel Crucorney School and asked her 20 pupils if they could spot the mistake. Without exception, the primary level students nailed it. They then wrote a letter to the council (see below) expressing their disapproval.
Okay, having a classroom full of ten-year olds admonish you for poor spelling is a little embarrassing but still a few lengthy strides away from ‘humiliating’.
Well, this little episode made it into the local press.
Okay, we’re edging toward humiliating now, but we’re not all the way there yet.
Then, the piece was taken up by the BBC and featured on their website. The BBC website receives 1.2 million page views and 80 million hits per month.
Like I said: humiliating.
So, we proofreaders don’t simply expose spelling errors and grammatical slip-ups. No, we shield our employers and clients from the searing heat of unwanted publicity in a media-soaked era. Okay, so we do that by trawling for spelling mistakes and poorly-executed English, but that's not going to hold anyone's attention at a dinner party, is it?
Proofreading Course Deleted Scene Four
Your Choice of Pen is Important
After you’ve been proofreading for a while, you’ll start to get a little bit picky about pens. You’ll find some pens are too splodgy and some pens deliver precisely the right amount of ink onto the page. You’ll find some pens are too scratchy and some pens seem almost to caress the paper. You’ll find some pens are easy to grip and some pens are like eels with a nib. You’ll find some pens endure and some pens dry out if you leave the lid off for more than a nanosecond. You’ll find some pens are tough as Tonka toys and some pens are delicate and doomed. And, eventually, you’ll find a pen that, like Baby Bear’s porridge, is just right.
It can take a while.
Thankfully, there’s already somebody out there who’s as obsessive about pens as you are destined to be. He’s called The Pen Addict. Not only does this guy product-test and review a plethora of pens, he also provides you with a large image of a writing sample (like the one above) for each pen so you can judge for yourself.
You may find this pen-obsessive individual a little disturbing at first. Try not to be too judgmental, you’re looking at a snapshot of your future self.
To help you along, I got in touch with The Pen Addict and he has kindly made a couple of recommendations.
“I have had one or two proof readers mention to me that the Pentel Slicci 0.25mm red gel ink pen is one of their favorites. The line is sharp, consistent, and skip-free, and the red ink is bright. This pen has no problems stopping and starting. The only issue some have with this pen is that the barrel diameter is too narrow for their tastes. Another option would be the Uni-Ball Signo DX in 0.38mm or 0.5mm line widths. It comes in a 0.28mm, but it is much more scratchy than the Slicci.”
Our thanks to The Pen Addict for his expert advice. Visit the website here.
Proofreading Course Deleted Scene Five
We are Proofreaders. We are Not the Grammar Police.
The worst proofreaders, the very worst, perceive themselves as ‘guardians of language’, as defenders of ‘correct usage’. They actively seek out dangling modifiers, split infinitives, sentences ending with prepositions and so forth. Paradoxically, they appear to take pleasure in the displeasure that these contraventions cause them.
I have no problem with people who are niggled by such things. People get niggled by things. It’s human nature. Personally, I can’t stand the ‘beep’ that supermarket bar-code readers make. I don’t know why. Something about the pitch and the clipped quality of the thing (it seems to stop just as it starts) winds me up.
I also find the writings of the likes of Lynn Truss very entertaining. However, it is only that: entertainment. Eats, Shoots and Leaves shouldn’t be perceived as some kind of instruction manual. It’s a piece of linguistic fluff, not a stick for beating ‘less educated’ people with. I mean, ‘not a stick with which to beat ‘less educated’ people’.
The proofreader who practically obliterates a document with red scrawl is not going to be very popular when further investigation reveals that the majority of his or her comments consist of little more than splitting hairs over split infinitives and the like.
If you’re proofreading an academic tract, then, yes, you probably need to ensure that the strictest rules of grammar are adhered to. But the vast majority of documents you will proofread are likely to be presented in a less formal style, and intentionally so.
When proofreading, don’t ask yourself whether or not something is grammatically correct; ask yourself is it clear, effective and pleasant to read? Obviously, some grammatical errors are likely to call into question the professionalism of the copy’s originator, so, yes, all those apostrophes do need to be in the right place and we don’t want ‘you’re’ where we’re supposed to have ‘your’ etc.
As The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course relentlessly reiterates, let common sense be your guide.
In my experience, the proof reader who labors over ‘who versus whom’ is the proof reader who misses a glaring spelling error in 36-point Helvetica Black.
Proofreading Course Deleted Scene Six
Look After Your Eyes
As a proofreader, your eyes are your most important asset, so it’s vitally important that you afford them the proper care and respect.
The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course covers the importance of frequently resting your eyes and ensuring you attend regular appointments with your optician, but there is another area of eye care which is just as important. Nutrition.
Poor eye health is often brought about as a result of poor diet. The right foods, containing the right vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and so forth, can play a significant role in ensuring clear and effective vision long into your twilight years. And that means an effective and sustained income long into your twilight years, too.
Now, you don’t need me to tell you about the importance of Vitamins A, C and E (commonly referred to as ‘antioxidant vitamins’); you’ll find them in green vegetables, oranges, tomatoes, raw carrots, peppers, Brussel sprouts and so forth, and it goes without saying that they’re very good for your eyes.
However, less is known about the antioxidants Lutein and Zeaxanthin (now there's something to add to your dictionaries!). Collectively known as 'carotenoids', these antioxidants have been identified as contributing to a reduction in AMD or Age-related Macular Degeneration.
Both Lutein and Zeaxanthin occur naturally in a host of fruit and vegetables. Lutein can be found in mangos, bilberries, yellow peppers, kale, spinach and broccoli. Zeaxanthin occurs in oranges, sweet peppers, broccoli, corn, some lettuces, spinach, tangerines and eggs.
As you can see, some of the fruits and vegetables rich in eye-loving vitamins A, C and D are also reliable sources of Lutein and Zeaxanthin.
If anyone has any recipe ideas that contain a good helping of the fruits and vegetables listed above, let us know!
As you may have noticed, I've added rather a lot of extra bonus materials to The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course. All of these are designed to augment your proofreading skills, assist you in securing employment or running your own proofreading business.
Before I go into a little more detail, I'd just like to assure any customers who have purchased The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course in the last year or so, who may be feeling a little agrieved (and quite rightly so!) that I'm more than happy to send you the additional freebies if you get in touch via the Contact page. Proof of purchase would be useful but I'm not going to insist upon it.
Anyway, here's a little preview of those shiny new freebies:
Proofreading in the News
Spelling Mistakes Don’t Always Spell Disaster
It’s natural to assume that spelling errors will always devalue something: a document, an advertisement, a press release and especially a book.
But when it came to a rare first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this certainly wasn’t the case.
In fact, a spelling error on the back cover meant the book was so rare and unusual it fetched almost $60,000 when it went under the hammer at Bonham’s auctioneers in Knightsbridge, London.
The spelling error? The second ‘o’ was missing from the word “Philosopher's” on the back cover of the book, so that it read, "Acclaim for Harry Potter and The Philospher's Stone".
Lucky for Harry Potter, he was far less lackadaisical when it came to spelling.
Source: Evening Standard, London.
The Proofreader's Vocabulary Boost
A proofreader’s vocabulary is one of their most valuable tools. So here are some words to give you the edge. And if they don’t come up in any documents you’re proofreading, they might help you win at Scrabble.
Autotomy: the casting off of a limb or other part of the body by an animal under threat, such as a lizard.
Incunabula: books printed before 1501.
Thalassic: relating to the sea.
Proofreading isn’t all about publishing…
Duties for a Legal Secretary vacancy at healthcare consortium Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles include preparing, editing and proofreading legal correspondence, presentations and other practice area related documents.
This is the first in a regular feature, in which I will be compiling various things of interest to proofreaders.
Proofreading in the News
It isn’t often the subject of proofreading is actually considered newsworthy. But for every long-awaited novel, there’s a professional proofreader toiling in the background. And could there be a novel more long-awaited than The Winds of Winter, the sixth book of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire sequence, more widely (and incorrectly) known as Game of Thrones?
The last book in the sequence was released in 2011. Rumor has it that volume six is currently in the hands of its proofreader. Now, I’ve worked on some high-pressure proofreading assignments but this takes the biscuit. I can’t even begin to imagine the pressure this proofreader is under!
Embarrassing Proofreading Errors
Fans of the Cleveland Browns sitting in the Dawg Pound section of the FirstEnergy Stadium could have benefitted from the assistance of a proofreader and a drone, as they unfurled their three-part banner during a their game against the New York Jets.
Instead of reading ‘This is the Dawg Pound’, it read ‘This is GPODAWUND’. The phrase was soon trending as a hashtag on Twitter.
The Proofreader's Vocabulary Boost
A proofreader’s vocabulary is one of their most valuable tools. So here are some words to give you the edge. And if they don’t come up in any documents you’re proofreading, they might help you win at Scrabble.
Galeanthropy: noun. A mental condition of thinking that one has become a cat, usually manifest in the adoption of feline mannerisms and habits.
Tabloidese: noun. The language and style of writing characteristic of sensationalist tabloid journalism; also called ‘tabloid-speak’.
Quadragesimarian: noun. One who observes Lent.
(All words courtesy of The Phrontistery website)
Proofreading isn’t all about publishing because…
… Citrin Cooperman, an accounting, tax, and consulting firm, are currently seeking a proofreader in their New York office.
Chances are the first assignment you will find yourself faced with once you take your initial tentative steps on the road to becoming a professional proofreader will be proofreading someone’s novel.
The novel will likely be the work of a family member or friend, or a friend of a friend.
I would strongly recommend you reject the assignment.
I’m serious. Run away.
A ‘fresh pair of eyes’ isn’t going to cut it, pal.
Why? Because this budding author doesn’t want you to proofread their novel at all. They want you to edit it. Oh, they’ll say things like, “I just need someone to run a fresh pair of eyes over it.” They’ll say things like, “I’ve checked it myself, like a hundred times, so it’s going to be pretty much error-free.” They’ll say things like, “You’re just looking for anything glaring that I might have overlooked, that’s all.”
Don’t believe a word of it. That’s not to say they’re lying. Chances are they genuinely believe their literary debut is pretty much error-free, contains the odd overlooked glaring error, and just needs a fresh pair of eyes running over it. But they’re wrong. They’re so very, very wrong.
The fact is, their magnum opus doesn’t need proofreading, at all. Not yet, at least. No, their work needs editing. It needs editing badly. Which means it needs the attention of an editor before a proofreader ventures anywhere near it.
You are not an editor. At least, not yet.
Now, you may aspire to becoming an editor. If so, great. But this site is about proofreading, and my eBook is a proofreading how-to guide. And, as I’ve pointed out on a number of occasions, proofreading and editing are very different activities. Editing is very much about the quality of a manuscript. Proofreading is about the accuracy of a piece of work.
Don’t get me wrong, proofreading improves the quality of a manuscript no end but it does so by removing the inaccurate spelling, grammar and so forth that marks out a piece of writing as second rate. What’s more, there’s nothing wrong with a proofreader making the odd recommendation that would normally fall to the editor, but such suggestions should only be occasional and should be very far from the core focus of what the proofreader is attempting to achieve.
At the risk of stating the obvious, quality is subjective, a matter of opinion. Conversations between editors and writers tend to be closer to a negotiation, with the editor’s recommendations often accompanied by a persuasive argument. Proofreaders and writers rarely need to communicate directly with one another. More often than not, our archaic red-pen squiggles say all that needs to be said.
Most first novels remain unpublished for a reason
Now, you could approach the proofreading of your friend-of-a-friend’s novel silently intoning the mantra, “My business is not to edit. My business is to proofread. My business is not to edit. My business is to proofread.” But I guarantee that before you get to the end of the second page, you’ll be biting you tongue, your mind a whirl of recommendations that will not simply improve the work of our budding novelist but will lift it from the realms of utter dross into something that might, with a great deal of work, just about be made fit for public consumption.
I know this seems harsh. It is harsh. But the chances are the novel you’re asked to proofread will be, at best, mediocre. Chances are, it will be an incomprehensible mess, which will elicit a despondent sigh and a mumbled, “Where do I even start?”
My advice: don’t agree to proofread a novel that hasn’t already been rigorously and independently edited. A novel that has been subjected to the often-harsh scrutiny of an editor will, by and large, only require proofreading. And that’s your job. That’s what you’ve trained for. An unedited novel is a metaphorical and literal headache just waiting to happen. Your headache.
There are exceptions, of course. There are first novels that materialize as if by magic and set the literary world aflame. And these incendiary debuts are written by people who have families, by people who have friends and whose friends have friends. There may well be a Rowling out there who was approached by their second cousin, Joanne, with a polite, “I’ve heard you do a bit of proofreading. You wouldn’t mind casting a fresh pair of eye over this, would you?”
The chances are vanishingly remote, however.
We live in the age of self-publishing. And I think that’s fantastic. For writers. For proofreaders, it’s an utter freaking nightmare. Because the traditional gatekeepers are no longer at their posts. And again, this is great. For writers. They can get their work out there, build up a readership and, as long as they’re prepared to do their growing-up in public, find success. But for proofreaders... like I said: utter freaking nightmare.
If you find it hard to say ‘no’...
Okay, so our budding novelist has deployed their best puppy-dog eyes and is staring at you with imploring desperation. You just can’t find it in your heart to say ‘no’.
Whatever you do, whatever you do, don’t say ‘yes’.
Say, “I’ll tell you what, just because it’s you, I’ll take a look at it. I’m not promising anything. If I think it isn’t ready for proofreading, I’ll hand it back and advise you to take it,” and your damned puppy-dog eyes, “to an editor. Okay?”
Then, without so much as picking up a red pen, give the first two pages of the manuscript a read. That’s going to be about 500 words or so. If, after you’ve read those first 500 words you’ve only spotted the odd silly mistake, then read the next 500 words. Keep doing that until you’ve flicked through about 20 pages of manuscript. If you’re only encountering silly little errors and minor oversights, then and only then accept the assignment.
This won’t happen, of course. Well, maybe it’ll happen.
It’s far more likely that by the time you get to the end of page two, you’ll be confused as to who’s doing what to whom, or why they’re doing it. You’ll have encountered at least four passive sentences, three dangling modifiers, a handful of clichés, a surfeit of adverbs and more synonyms for ‘said’ than you even knew existed. And the seed of that headache I promised you will have started to sprout its first agonizing little shoot.
Hand the manuscript back and say, “There’s definitely something good here. But it needs an editor.”
So when you find yourself staring down at a manuscript so besmirched with red ink it looks like it’s been used as a prop in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and you’re wondering where the time went (midnight, already?), don’t say I didn’t warn you. Because I warned you.
Best of luck with all your proofreading endeavors.
Check out my Proofreading Course. It's a lot cheaper than any other proofreading course currently available. A lot cheaper. To find out more, click here.
In which, the proofreader must bite his tongue.
The proofreader glares down at a manuscript that is positively swarming with red ink and vows never to accept an assignment from a ‘budding novelist’ ever again.
The budding novelist in question is Gary Draper, the proofreaders wife’s cousin. The novel is entitled The Pirate. The plot, insofar as there is a plot, concerns a serial killer, with an eye patch and a hook for a hand, who is whittling his way through a cast of unconvincing characters in a holiday resort in the Caribbean. No motive is given for these slayings aside from the fact that The Pirate is deranged. All The Pirate’s victims are young women who have made the fatal error of looking great in swimwear. Gary has entirely overlooked the fact that a novel requires a protagonist or, indeed, a point.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the writing itself was competent. It isn’t. It would be inaccurate to describe the author’s attitude to grammar as ‘rule breaking’ because that would suggest that Gary knew the rules in the first place. He very clearly doesn’t. There are more split infintives and dangling modifiers than you can shake a stick at, and the entire thing appears to have been written in the passive voice. The proofreader finds this latter point almost funny, that such an unpleasant and aggressive piece of prose could be described in any way as passive.
But split infinitives and dangling modifiers are as nothing compared to some of Gary Draper’s grammatical atrocities. The word ‘have’ seems to have been abandoned in favor of the increasingly popular and utterly unacceptable ‘of’. In Gary’s particular iteration of the multiverse, the apostrophe has been rendered extinct. And spelling, it would seem, if Mr Draper is to be believed, is for losers.
All of this, however, is tolerable. These kind of errors are meat and drink to the intrepid proofreader. Obviously, it is not typical for there to be quite so many of them but they are not, in and of themselves, unusual. What is really driving the proofreader in the general direction of the kitchen sink (beneath which is stored the emergency brandy) is the fact that Gary’s writing seems intent upon summoning the proofreader’s inner editor.
He is not an editor. He has never been an editor. He has worked with many great and talented editors in his time but he does not count himself among their number. He is a proofreader. He has been a proofreader all his working life. He will be a proofreader until the day his lips turn blue and they pry his red pen from his cold, dead hand. But Gary Draper’s awful writing has him critiquing instead of proofreading; it is forcing him to leave the objective world of right and wrong, and taking a few awkward steps into the subjective world of the editor. He doesn’t want to waist valuable red ink telling Gary that an adult novel can’t contain the expression “He was as crafty as a fox” and expect to be taken seriously, and yet he feels compelled to do so.
To find out if you've spotted all the mistakes, click on 'Read More', below.
Too late, the proofreader realizes he’s made a terrible mistake.
He thought it was Wednesday. He was wrong. Its Thursday. If he’d known it was Thursday, he wouldn’t have left his car parked in front of the house. If he’d known it was Thursday, he would have parked his little Audi in the next street, just like he has done for the last seven or eight months. Why does he park his car in the next street on Thursdays? Because Thursday is the day his sister, a sales rep for a soft drinks company, visits a number of customers in the proofreader’s area. Thursday is the day his sister drops by in search of coffee and conversation.
It isn’t that he in any way dislikes his sister; not at all. In fact, he loves Bonnie; she’s fantastic. He couldn’t hope for a better big sister. It’s just that once she starts talking she just can’t seem to stop. This would be fine if it was a Friday evening or a Saturday afternoon. But it isn’t Friday evening, and it isn’t Saturday afternoon. It’s Thursday afternoon. And not just any Thursday afternoon. It’s the last Thursday afternoon of the month, which means he’s currently proofreading the latest edition of Botanical Bulletin, which is due to go to press in just a few days time.
The proofreader loves and hates Botanical Bulletin in equal measure. He loves the fact that he gets paid handsomely to proofread it. He loves the fact that it’s regular work. He loves the fact that he gets on extremely well with the publication’s editor, Joanne Kirby. He hates the fact that, thanks to the likes of Theophrastis, Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder, Leonhart Fuchs and Linnaeus he has to hack his way through the dense forest that is botanical nomenclature.
Botanical Bulletin is a serious publication. Every plant, algae or fungi must be identified by its ‘correct name’ in accordance with the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. This means that the common daisy must be referred to as Bellis perennis, the sweet briar rose must be referred to as Rosa rubiginosa and the common dandelion must be referred to as Taraxacum officinal.
Spell-checking software is of absolutely no use in this situation. The proofreader must lean heavily on his now-battered copies of The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms and Plant Names: A Guide to Botanical Nomenclature, as well as a host of online resources. When none of these prove helpful, he calls Joanne who refers him to one of the many botanists who contribute to Botanical Bulletin. It is, quite frankly, a colossal headache.
The situation is manageable as long as the proofreader is able to give Botanical Bulletin the benefit of his full attention. This will not be possible if Bonnie sees his car parked outside and decides to invite herself in for caffeine and company.
The proofreader lays down his read pen on the proofs for Botanical Bulletin and starts toward the front door. Maybe there’s still time to move my car, he thinks.
He thinks wrong.
The doorbell chimes.
Click on Read More below to find out what the mistakes were.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Punctuation is "the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and the correct reading, both silently and aloud, of handwritten and printed texts."
The Oxford English Dictionary offers this, slightly drier, definition: "The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks.”
Neither of these definitions is correct. Or, at least, neither of them is true. If they were, we would be taught to punctuate only when ‘understanding’ is in jeopardy. The rest of the time, we would write with the propulsive energy and joy of a Jack Kerouac, a William Burroughs or a James Joyce. Our job application letters would nod and wink in the general direction of e e cummings. Or E. E. Cummings. Every proofreader would have a copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson on her desk to be used as a vital reference tool. But we don’t write like that. Well, most of us don’t.
No, we use punctuation all the time. We use punctuation whether understanding is in jeopardy or not. We use punctuation because it’s the rules.
The fact of the matter is we should be able to adopt a fairly take-it-or-leave-it approach to punctuation. Take a look at the hyphens in that last sentence. Were they really necessary? And what about the question mark, there? Did it help you understand any better. Did the missing question mark in that last sentence leave you all at sea and discombobulated? I doubt it. The lack of a question mark may well have irritated you or caused you to feel something approaching anxiety but it wasn’t as if a crucial aid to understanding had been cruelly withheld.
So now that you and I are totally in agreement that punctuation is in fact an oppressive bunch of largely unnecessary dots dashes squiggles and whatnots lets get onto what this blog post is really about shall we
(And I promise not to do the no-punctuation thing again because, let’s face it, it makes you uneasy.)
I really just wanted to talk about how much I love the fact that punctuation has escaped the confines of grammatical despotism and upped and flown away.
Not only do I love the fact that most emails and text messages tend, almost intuitively, to eschew the use of punctuation unless entirely necessary, I also love the fact that punctuation is regularly used in emails and text messages to create a whole host of expressions; the fact that you can emote using just a colon and a closing bracket is fantastic. Swap the colon for a semicolon and that little face is giving you a cheeky wink. How great is that? A colon, dash and lower-case ‘o’ gives us a surprised face. Replace the ‘o’ with a capital ‘D’ and you’re laughing your ass off. Easy and powerful.
I don’t believe these little ‘punctuation doodles’ represent a dumbing-down of language. I don’t even think they’re a flash-in-the-pan gimmick, the linguistic equivalent of a Tamagotchi. I think they’re an evolutionary step, a new gizmo in language’s extensive and fascinating toolbox. In the rapid back-and-forth of a telephone text conversation, these gizmos are crucial. If somebody makes a funny remark, it’s actually quite difficult to respond in a way that can’t be misinterpreted as sarcastic. If you text back “Very funny” how does the recipient know the comment isn’t intended ironically? Besides, “Very funny” sounds… well, a bit lame, doesn’t it? But at least it’s not as bad as the half-demented “ha ha ha ha!”. No, a colon, a hyphen and a capital ‘D’ work perfectly.
And then there’s the trend for punctuation tattoos: question marks, exclamation marks, brackets, parentheses, ellipses and the semicolon. The semicolon is particularly interesting. Whilst other punctuation tattoos appear to be employed largely for their typographic and aesthetic value, the semicolon tattoo has a deeper meaning.
The application of a semicolon can be seen as a writer’s decision to continue a sentence that might otherwise have been terminated with a period. And so, the semicolon has come to represent the choice to continue living rather than bringing your life to an end. The meaning has expanded to represent the impulse to keep going in the face of adversity and, as such, has become a symbol of the fight against depression and, more broadly, mental illness. The semicolon is often seen together with phrases like ‘Be Strong’.
Initiatives like Amy Bleuel’s Project Semicolon and Jenn Brown’s and Jeremy Jaramillo’s The Semicolon Tattoo Project, have taken what was something of a trend that had bled out of social media and turned into something very much like a movement.
Punctuation has left home and is developing an exciting new life of its own.
As a proofreader, it’s my job to ensure the rules are followed. I don’t have to like it, though. It would not work out well for any proofreader if they started neatly circling punctuation marks with their trusty red pen and writing in the margin “Do you really need all these crazy little squiggles?”
But before we get back to the world of rules, here’s an extract from James Joyce’s Ulysses, to give you an inkling of just how exhilarating (and discombobulating) a world without punctuation might be:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathing suits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope I'll never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats…
For those of you feeling a little queasy after that, don’t worry; normal service will be resumed next post, which is going to be a good, old-fashioned proofreading exercise, where poor punctuation will receive our full opprobrium! Mark my words!
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The Apostrophe Catastrophe
The proofreader does not like to think of himself as a pedant. He doesn’t see himself as some kind of self appointed guardian of the English language. He is not a fully paid-up member of the Grammar Police. He does not count himself among those who behave like the Agents of Syntax. He would be deeply uncomfortable in the presence of anyone who perceived themselves as some kind of Punisher of Poor Punctuation.
He is none of these things. He is a proofreader. Moreover, he is a professional proofreader. His role is not to sneer or deride. His role is to highlight errors in order to transform a document from something that might only be considered a draft into something that is fit for public consumption. His job is to safeguard the reputation of his clients by ensuring they do not publish material that may make them appear foolish or may be unhelpful to their customers. He has also, on occasion, uncovered errors that could have resulted in serious financial loss. For example, he once noticed that an item of jewelry was being sold at a fraction of its value, due to a misplaced decimal point. These are the things that give him purpose. He is nothing if not practical. He is not a snarling Grammar Nazi, using his dictionary as a weapon. He is a helpful professional. Sneering is not his thing.
But the sign drives him mad. The sign invokes a slight curling of the lip that may, in time, become something that might reasonably be described as a sneer. He hopes this is not the case but he is not optimistic regarding the outcome. He has tried to ignore it but it is impossible. It wouldn’t be so bad if he passed it infrequently. Unfortunately, he has to pass the sign every week day morning as he takes his children to school.
The sign is high up on the red brick wall of a building that the proofreader thinks used to be a bank. The sign says Schoolteachers Friendly Society.
Now, the proofreader never takes the absence of an apostrophe lightly. Apostrophes are very important. Apostrophes denote possession. Apostrophes denote contraction; in this role, the proofreader thinks of the apostrophe as a small fragment of debris left over when two words smash into one another. He would never deny the vital function that apostrophes often play.
All that being said, he has, on occasion, looked the other way. He hasn’t felt good about it but he has allowed his head to rule his heart and not the other way round. These occasions when he has had to let these grammatical transgressions pass unchallenged almost always involve signs, logos or other elements were typographical design is a governing factor. He understands that significant design elements must occasionally be considered exempt from the rules that govern the printed word. Apostrophes are awkward little buggers. They are a typographical sore thumb, spoiling the fine line of a neatly designed piece of type.
The proofreader simply can’t make the exception this time. This is the Schoolteachers' Friendly Society. The very name speaks of academia and education. An exception can’t be made.
The proofreader walks past, shaking his head. He reaches up and touches a finger to the left corner of his mouth.
Yes, that curve is definitely getting bigger. Any day now, he’ll have a fully fledged sneer.
To find out what the errors are, click on 'Read More' below.
The proofreader stares at the bifurcated nib of his red pen and tries not to sob. He turns his attention to the manuscript he is currently proofreading. Where he has scored through the word anunciate, there is a distinct doubling of the line. He sighs and returns his gaze to the pen.
Its his favourite pen, a uni-ball Eye Micro. He loves this pen. The nib delivers a beautiful 0.5mm line of fade resistant ink that refuses to bleed, even on low-grade paper. The proofreader is almost certain that the only paper capable of causing the Eye Micro’s ink to bleed is super-absorbent toilet paper. He looks at the ink window in the pen’s barrel and sees that he hasn’t even used half of that clean, bright ink.
Insult to injury, he thinks.
Although he knows he’s wasting his time, the proofreader draws a vertical line down the empty right-hand margin of the manuscript. Unsurprisingly, the mark consists of two distinct elements running in parallel to one another.
“Well, that’s that, then,” he says.
He doesn’t drop the pen into the wastepaper basket next to his desk. Instead, he reaches over his inert laptop and picks up an ornately carved box. The box is made of mahogany or some similar dark timber. The carvings depict an elaborate knot of serpents. It is the kind of box that might hold cigars.
The proofreader opens the box. It doesn’t contain cigars. It contains pens. This is where the proofreaders red pens go when they die. This is the red-pen equivalent of the fabled elephant’s graveyard. There are several Eye Micros, a handful of Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine Points, a trio of Pentel R.S.V.P. 0.7mm Ballpoint Pens and a couple of Sharpies.
The proofreader places the Eye Micro in the cigar box, closes the lid and returns the box.
“No time for sentimentality,” he says. “I’ve got work to be getting on with.”
He looks down at the page he has been proofreading. It’s been hard going. It’s a treatise entitled The Death of Received Pronunciation and the Decline of the BBC. He can’t help wondering if he’d subconsciously sabotaged his pen in order to bring this dreary exercise to a premature halt.
“Never,” he says. “I’d never knowingly hurt a pen.”
He opens the top drawer of his desk and reaches inside.
An expression somewhere between horror, astonishment and embarrassment animates his face. He pulls the drawer open as far as it will go and looks inside.
“No pens,” he says, disbelieving. “No pens.”
This is a disaster. This is an unprecedented disaster. He has been a proofreader for the better part of 20 years and, in all that time, he has never been without a pen.
The proofreader wonders what it must mean. He wonders what it must portend.
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My name's Mike Sellars and I'm an experienced proofreader and the author of The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course. Click here to find out more about me.
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