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Proofreading (including a quiz)

How to proofread and never miss a single errror

How did you do on last week’s proofreading quiz?

“Porn and Beans” and other proofreading classics

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

How to proofread and never miss a single errror

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

We all have horror stories we can tell about proofreading errors, about those times when, despite our best efforts, something slipped past our vigilant gaze.

Sometimes these lapses are relatively harmless. Other times, if we’re lucky, our readers don’t even notice. All too often, however, the errors are obvious and painfully embarassing.

Four years ago this May, for example, the University of Wisconsin awarded nearly 4,000 diplomas with the name of the state spelled “Wisconson.” Amazingly, six months passed before anyone noticed and brought it to the University’s attention. “We do proofread the diplomas,” said one official, “but we concentrate on the name and the degree. We usually consider that the standard information is correct. It just didn’t occur to us that this could happen.” But it did happen, and the printing company ended up paying for replacements.

Once during my days as an administrator at the University of Minnesota I was serving on a search committee. Of the more than 130 applications, one stood out. The application letter began with a reference to the position of “associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Minnesota” and concluded with a statement about “the real reason I want to come to the University of Maryland is . . .” The committee members recognized the gaffe as a word-processing error, an illustration of both the power and the risk of electronically produced text, and we had a good chuckle. Needless to say, however, the applicant didn’t get the job.

In fairness to word processors, it must be acknowledged that these wonderful machines and their marvelous spell-checking programs have led to a dramatic reduction in mispellings. No longer is it commonplace, for example, to see “accommodate” spelled with one “m,” “commitment” spelled with a double “t” after the “i,” or that formerly much-abused word, “occurrence,” misspelled three different ways in a single attempt: with one “c,” one “r,” and an “a” rather than an “e.” But even the wizardry of computers won’t prevent you from using the wrong word, correctly spelled – like “effect” when you mean “affect,” or “complement” when you mean “compliment.”

In other words, affective proofreading is still an important and necessary skill. To help you sharpen that skill, I recommend the following techniques:

1. Read slowly and fixate on each word.
2. Sub-vocalize (or, better yet, read out loud).
3. Read one line at a time (try holding a ruler or sheet of paper beneath each line as you read it).
4. When you find an error, reread the entire sentence (for some reason, we tend to assume that a sentence will have no more than one error).
5. Check for consistency in format (in headings, spacing, punctuation, layout, etc.)
7. Watch for common errors (like “it’s” for “its,” or missing quotation marks and parentheses – especially the closing marks.
8. Pay special attention to headings (their authoritative appearance can fool you).
9. Check not only for typographical errors but for common word-processing errors like repeated, missing, repeated, and misplaced text.
10. Have someone who was not involved in the preparation of your text check it over.
11. Because certain errors can be caught more readily by the author, be sure to proofread your own copy when someone else is doing your typing.

Finally – as recommended in 1978 by the National Secretaries Association – “Proofread tomorrow what you worked on today.”

Now, as you have doubtless noticed, this column is studded with errors. I did this intentionally to give you some practice applying the proofreading techniques I am recommending. Not counting “Wisconson” for “Wisconsin,” there are nine – at least, I think that’s how many there are. (Let me know if you find more!) Can you find all nine? Work with a colleague if you like. Answers will appear in next weeks column.

Happy hunting!

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing
How did you do on last week’s proofreading quiz?

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

 

In last week’s column, I offered 11 techniques for foolproof proofreading. On the assumption that people learn more effectively when given the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they are being taught, I included a number of intentional errors in my copy – nine, to be exact – and I invited you to find them.

How did you do? Did get help from a colleague?

Most of the errors were obvious, but some may have been hard to spot. At least one was inconspicuous. I suspect that only the most skilled proofreaders among you found all nine.

Here are the errors as they appeared, beginning with the misspelling in the headline.

Error 1:
“How to proofread and never miss a single errror”

That’s an easy one. “Errror” should have a double rather than a triple “r.”

Error 2:
“All too often, however, the errors are obvious and painfully embarassing.”

For some odd reason, “embarrass” is correctly spelled with a double “r,” whereas “harass” is spelled with a single “r.” Inconsistencies of this nature were slipped into the English language by unscrupulous lexicographers for the sole purpose of making life difficult for the rest of us. If you’ve ever met an lexicographer, you know how diabolical they can be.

Error 3:
“In fairness to the word processor, however, it must be acknowledged that these wonderful machines and their marvelous spell-checking programs have led to a dramatic reduction in mispellings.”

I’m embarrassed by this one. I can’t believe my spell-checker didn’t catch it for me. As I’m sure you noticed, “mispellings” should be spelled “misspellings.” I confess: spelling will always be a mystery to me. And here I was preaching to you about the importance of getting it write.

Error 4:
“In other words, affective proofreading is still an important and necessary skill.”

There’s another one! That should be “effective,” which means producing a decisive or desired effect, as opposed to “affective,” which means relating to feelings or emotions. If you have trouble knowing when to use “affect” or “effect,” just memorize this phrase (and note that the two words are in alphabetical order): To affect something, you must have an effect on it. Remember:  “Affect” is almost always used as a verb; “effect” is almost always used as a noun. The only common usage for “effect” as a verb is in this phrase: “to effect change.” Otherwise, if you’re looking for a verb, the safe bet is “affect.”

Errors 5, 6, & 7:
“5. Check for consistency in format (in headings, spacing, punctuation, layout, etc.)
7. Watch for common errors (like 'it’s' for 'its,' or missing quotation marks and parentheses – especially the closing marks.”

There are three errors contained in these two points of advice. If you found the first one, which is hardly noticeable, you are to be commended as a very fine proofreader indeed: Item 5 is the only item in the list that does not end with a period. In addition, the numbering is faulty (number 6 is skipped), and item 7 is missing its closing parenthesis.

Error 8:
“Check not only for typographical errors but for common word-processing errors like repeated, missing, repeated, and misplaced text.”

Ah, the electronic gremlin strikes again, leaving a chunk of “repeated” text where it doesn’t belong.

Error 9:
“Answers will appear in next weeks column.”

Watch out for apostrophes when forming the possessive. They are easily omitted. In this case, an apostrophe is needed to form the possessive of “week,” as in “next week’s column.”

Well, I hope this little exercise wasn’t too painful for you. But who ever said writing was supposed to be fun, anyway?

By the way, if you want to share any of your favorite horror stories about proofreading errors, I’d love to hear them.

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

“Porn and Beans” and other proofreading classics

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Well, I can see we need another column on proofreading errors.

My articles on proofreading elicited three times the number of letters that my columns typically generate. (Thanks, Mom, Dad, Sis.)

Responding to my invitation to share favorite horror stories about proofreading, Colleen Hofelman of Pipestone wrote that her local grocery store was offering a real attention-grabber as its special of the week: “Porn and Beans.”

Which reminds me of the one my editor shared with me from the headline in a Catholic weekly newspaper: “The joy of pubic worship.”

Philip Carlson, a Minneapolis landscape architect, sent in this one: “My biggest blooper was in a letter to an important out-of-town client. I typed the letter and studied the body of it carefully for errors, including spell-checking in the computer. Only after I had sent it did I notice I had addressed it to ‘Mr. Brain (instead of Brian) Brennan.’ If he noticed, he never told me.”

Jane Perkins from Mankato thinks that the typo in Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, “should win the big one!” On page 294, eulogy is misspelled eulegy, but Ms. Perkins “almost” likes it that way because, she notes, eulegy could be “a combination of eulogy and elegy.”

And then there was the one from Irene Bohn, of New Hope Elementary School, who wrote about the two grown men who went out, with dogs and rifles in tow, to do some “mouse hunting.”

The story that best illustrates how costly proofreading errors can be came from Winifred Lanches of Richfield (who, by the way, was relieved when she read in the last paragraph of my column that I had made all those errors intentionally – until that point, she told me, she “was beginning to wonder” how I had “made it as a columnist!”). Ms. Lanches shared an anecdote “from many years ago” about a traveling sales rep of a large produce company who wired his boss one day to find out if he should accept the price he had been quoted for a quantity of produce. The boss called Western Union to send a wire, which read: “NO PRICE TOO HIGH.” With this in mind, the sales rep bought an entire carload, only to learn on his return that what the boss had intended to say was: “NO. PRICE TOO HIGH.”

Ah, so much for the price of a missing period! Or should that be “cost”?

Some of you wrote to describe particular proofreading “afflictions.” As a member of a newspaper family, Charles Dare of Elk River has been proofreading all his life. In fact, even in retirement Mr. Dare is still so “afflicted” with “proofreading compulsion” that he proofs everything he reads, even signs and notices, and when he thinks he spots an error he calls the company.

Stella Waletski of Anoka had another kind of affliction in mind when she wrote, “Do you have any idea what it is like to live for years with a live, breathing, walking dictionary?” She was referring, of course, to her husband.

A number of readers, including B.J. Gades of Morris and Lucy Bigelow Hazel of St. Cloud, wrote to inform me that they had found an “unintended” error in my sentence, “And here I was preaching to you about the importance of getting it write.” Ms. Hazel rote, “By the way, sir, your computer didn’t do ‘write’ by you and neither did your proofreader.”

Right. “Write” should indeed be “right” in the phrase, “getting it write.” But which of these is right: Does a playwright write or does a playwrite wright?

And, if that’s too easy for you, try this: How many rites could a playwright write if a playwright could write right? Or, if you prefer: How many wrongs could a playwright right if a playwright could right wrongs? Or should that be “writes”?

 

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