Before you submit your essay, there’s one more important step: proofreading. Good proofreading involves far more than a simple run of spell and grammar check on your computer. In fact, those programs are not foolproof, and therefore, a reliance on them alone to find your errors is a mistake. However, they are not a bad place to start. This lesson explains how to use these tools to your advantage, as well as how to find and correct the most common grammar and mechanics errors.
Studies on grammar- and spell-check programs show that they are more effective when used as a first (not final) step in proofreading. After you’ve clicked your mouse through grammar and spell check, print out a hard copy of your essay and complete proofreading steps 2 and 3: Check for errors in grammar and mechanics.
Limitations of Spell and Grammar Checkers
There is no excuse for not using spell- and grammar-check programs. They’re fast and simple and catch many common errors. However, they’re not foolproof. Spell check has three important limitations you should be aware of:
1. Non-Word versus Real-Word Errors
Most of us think of spelling errors in the first category—that is, a string of letters that does not make a real word. You might type sevn instead of seven, or th for the. Spell check is an excellent tool for catching these types of mistakes. However, if you are discussing the seven years of piano lessons you have taken, and you leave off the s in the word seven, the result is even, which spell check won’t flag, because even is correctly spelled.
This is known as a real-word error. You have typed a legitimate, correctly spelled word; it’s just not the word you meant to type, and it doesn’t convey the meaning you intended. Spell check can’t find these types of errors.
2. Proper Nouns
Spell check uses a dictionary that does not include most proper nouns and words in other categories, such as the names of chemicals. You can always add a word or words to the dictionary once you are sure of its spelling, but the first time, you will need to use another source (a reliable print one is best) to verify the spelling.
3. Errors Spelled Similarly to Other Real Words
If you misspell a word in such a way that it is now closer, letter by letter, to a word other than the one you intended, spell check will probably offer the wrong word as a correction. For example, if your essay includes a coffeehouse scenario, and you type the word expresso, spell check will correct the error with express rather than espresso. Similarly, alot will be corrected to allot. You must pay careful attention to spell check’s suggested corrections to ensure the right selection.
Grammar-check programs are also effective but not foolproof. They can make two kinds of mistakes: missing errors, and flagging errors that are actually correct. The first problem, missing errors, is illustrated by the following examples. A grammar check on the following sentence did pick up the subject/verb agreement error (I is), but did not notice the participle error (I studying).
I is ready to take the exam after I studying my notes and the textbook.
Similarly, the punctuation problems in the following sentence were not flagged.
The recipe, calls for fifteen ingredients and, takes too long to prepare.
When grammar check does highlight an error, be aware that it may, in fact, be correct. But if your knowledge of grammar is limited, you will not know whether to accept grammar check’s corrections. To further complicate matters, you may be offered more than one possible correction and will be asked to choose between them. Unless you are familiar enough with the specific problem, this may be no more than a guess. It is important to understand the type of error highlighted, and get more information if you are not sure about it.
💡 Professional Proofreading Tricks
1. Take your time. Studies show that waiting at least 20 minutes before proofreading your work can increase your likelihood of finding errors. Get up from your computer, take a break or move on to some other task, and then come back to your writing.
2. Read backward. Go through your writing from the last word to the first, focusing on each individual word, rather than on the context.
3. Ask for help. A pair of fresh eyes may find mistakes that you have overlooked dozens of times, and one or more of your colleagues or friends may be better at finding spelling and grammar errors than you are.
4. Go under cover. Print out a draft copy of your writing, and read it with a blank piece of paper over it, revealing just one sentence at a time. This technique will encourage a careful line-by-line edit.
5. Watch the speed limit. No matter which proofreading technique(s) you use, slow down. Reading at your normal speed will not give you enough time to spot errors.
6. Know thyself. Keep track of the kinds of errors you typically make. Common spelling errors can be caught by spell check if you add the word or words to the spell-check dictionary. When you know what you are looking for, you are more likely to find it.
Proofreading for Grammar
Grammar refers to the hundreds of rules that govern sentences. Space confines limit this article’s discussion of those rules to three of the most common errors:
■ confusing words (they’re, there, their)
■ agreement (singular nouns with singular verbs, plural nouns with plural verbs)
■ run-ons and sentence fragments
Often, words are confused because the writer is in a hurry. It’s not a matter of needing to learn the meaning of the words, but rather taking the time to check for accuracy.However, certain groups of words are commonly confused because not only do they sound or look alike, but also their meanings may be close enough to cause hesitation. Check the following list for those you’re unsure of, and commit that shorter list to memory.
Agreement refers to the balance of sentence elements such as subjects and verbs and pronouns and antecedents. (An antecedent is the noun a pronoun replaces.) To agree, singular subjects require singular verbs, and plural subjects require plural verbs. Likewise, singular nouns can be replaced only by singular pronouns, and plural nouns require plural pronouns.
Most of these errors are easy to spot. If you mistype “The scientists was working on an important experiment,” you (or, possibly, your grammar-check program) will catch it. But problems arise when a phrase or phrases separate the subject and verb or noun and pronoun. Here’s an example:
“Eat, drink, and be merry,” is a label associated with Greek philosopher Epicurus, but like most catchy slogans, they simplify what is actually a rich and complex message.
Notice how the phrase like most catchy slogans can mislead you. If you assume slogans is the subject, then the pronoun they and the verb simplify seem correct—they agree with the plural subject. But look again at the sentence. Slogans isn’t the subject of the verb simplify. What is simplifying? Not the slogans, but the label “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry”—a singular noun. Thus, the pronoun must be it and the verb must be simplifies to agree with the subject.
Run-ons and Sentence Fragments
Complete sentences require a noun and verb, and express a fully developed thought. Two common sentence errors are extremes. Sentence fragments stop too quickly; they are phrases that are not whole thoughts. Run-on sentences don’t stop soon enough; they include two or more complete clauses or sentences.
Sentence fragments are often missing a subject or verb, and may be phrases or parts of other sentences. Be aware that fragments can sometimes be difficult to identify because even though they don’t express complete thoughts, they can be long and appear correct. Here are a few examples, with corrections:
Because she had to stop studying and go to lacrosse practice.
Cried a lot.
When we finished the game after the sun began setting.
She had to stop studying and go to lacrosse practice.
Sheu Ling cried a lot.
We finished the game after the sun began setting.
Run-on sentences are made up of two or more independent clauses or complete sentences placed together into one sentence without proper punctuation. For example:
We were hungry and John was tired so we had to stop at the first rest area that we saw.
Kim studied hard for the test that’s why he got an A.
Patty took flying lessons every Saturday so she couldn’t go to the picnic and she couldn’t go to the graduation party either but she has already signed up for another group of flying lessons because she likes it so much.
Here’s how to fix run-on sentences:
1. Separate the clauses with a period. Example: We are here. You are not.
2. Connect the clauses with a comma and a conjunction (and, or, nor, for, but, so, yet). We are here, but you are not.
3. Connect the clauses with a semicolon (and possibly an adverb such as however, therefore, or otherwise, making sure it expresses the right relationship between the two ideas). We are here; you are not.
The previous run-ons can be corrected as follows:
We were hungry and John was tired, so we had to stop at the first rest area that we saw.
Kim studied hard for the test; that’s why he got an A.
Patty took flying lessons every Saturday, so she couldn’t go to the picnic. She couldn’t go to the graduation party either, but she has already signed up for another group of flying lessons because she likes it so much.
Proofreading for Mechanics
Mechanics refers to the standard practices for the presentation of words and sentences, including capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. As with grammar, there are many rules for mechanics, but here we will cover the ones that cause essay writers the most problems. See the Appendix for more thorough grammar and mechanics resources.
Capitalization is necessary both for specific words and to start sentences and quotes. However, many writers overuse it. Only six occasions require capitalization:
1. the first word of a sentence
2. proper nouns (names of people, places, and things)
3. the first word of a complete quotation, but not a partial quotation
4. the first, last, and any other important words of a title
6. the pronoun I, and any contractions made with it
There are dozens of punctuation marks in the English language. They’re used to separate ideas, form words, and make the meanings of the sentence clear. Poor punctuation can confuse your readers and change your intended meaning. For example, one comma completely changes the meaning of this short sentence:
Don’t call me, stupid!
Don’t call me stupid!
Here’s a quick punctuation review:
Proofreading for spelling errors after you’ve run a spell-check program means looking carefully for real-word errors. If you typed tow instead of two, that mistake is still in your essay, waiting for you to find it. Use the professional proofreading tricks on page 133 (especially numbers 2, 4, and 6) to scan for mistakes.
Proofreading is the final step in the writing process. Begin by running spell- and grammar-check programs, being mindful of their shortcomings. Then, using the professional proofreaders’ tips, study your essay for errors in grammar. In particular, look out for confused words, agreement mistakes, and run-on sentences and fragments. Finally, check your mechanics.Have you used capital letters and punctuation marks correctly? Are there real-word or other spelling errors that spell check missed?