So, what exactly does a proofreader do? What precisely is proofreading?
In the age of spell checkers and grammar-checking software, do we still need to proofread in the traditional sense? Surely proofreading has gone the way of hot-metal typesetting, book-binding and such. It’s unnecessary, obsolete. It’s (shudder) quaint.
Well, if it was a proofreader’s job simply to identify and correct literal spelling errors and obvious grammatical gaffes, then yes, proofreading would no longer be an activity in itself and there would be no need for proofreaders as a professional group.
However, proofreaders (the really good ones) don’t just seek out spelling and grammatical inaccuracies. The proofreader’s red pen homes-in on inconsistencies, departures from common sense, inappropriate phrasing (e.g. something very informal in an otherwise business-like document), misleading statements, imprecise use of language, typographical discrepancies, incorrectly captioned images, erroneous telephone numbers, email addresses and URLs.
When I worked at Shop Direct, proofreaders checking our mail order catalogues would frequently spot products that were accompanied by the wrong price. Had such errors gone to press, the profit margin of said products would have been significantly reduced.
A really great proofreader takes ownership of a document; they ensure that when it hits the press (or is published online) it is absolutely faultless.
As for those little spelling errors. Even really exceptional proofreading software, like Whitesmoke or Ginger, struggles when words are spelled correctly but used incorrectly. For example, spell-checking software would find nothing wrong with, ‘The tedious bucket quashed the gangly camcorder,’ even though it makes no sense whatsoever.
In short, there really is no substitute for a good pair of eyes and the relentless focus of the proofreader.
Maybe one day, there will be a piece of software whose algorithm is so complex and adaptable that we will no longer need proofreaders. But until then...