Tuesday, August 26, 2008

English Language: How to Proof-read for the 5 Most Common Pitfalls

I know that I've mentioned the importance of proof-reading your writing in earlier posts, but I really can't stress it enough. We talk about proof-reading all the time, but few really know how to do it successfully. It's like when you write something in Word and suddenly it's underlined in green. The sentence looks good to you. Why's it underlined? If you can't figure out what's wrong with your sentence, it's really hard to fix, isn't it?

Here are the top 5 most common problems I see when I'm asked to proof-read someone's work (including my own) and how to fix them.

1. Typos
It can be extremely hard to find typos, but trust me, they're usually there. Sometimes I'll read something 15 times and it's not until I send the copy to the printer (or post to my blog) that I realize there's a major typo. Read through your writing slowly and focus on each word individually. Sometimes it helps to read each word out loud.

2. Confusing contractions
A very common mistake that I see is contraction confusion. For example, writing it's instead of its or they're instead of their. If I'm using contractions in my writing I always read them as two full words when I proof-read so that I'm sure I've used the correct form. Let's look at a sentence from #1: Sometimes I'll read something 15 times and it's not until I send... When I proofread that sentence I read: Sometimes I will read something 15 times and it is not until I send... By reading the sentence in its full form I can be sure that I'm using my contractions correctly. Conversely, every time I see its or their I stop to ask myself if I really mean to be using the possessive.

3. Punctuation
I'm not sure why punctuation has to be so confusing. The period (full stop in UK English), question mark and exclamation point are easy enough, but what about things like colons and semicolons? These are commonly misused.
Colons (:) are used to introduce lists or a summation. They come directly after a complete sentence.
I told him I like many flavors of ice cream: vanilla, orange sherbet, cookie dough and cookies & cream.
Semicolons (;) are used to separate two complete sentences. You could actually use a period instead of the semicolon, but for some reason you want to stress a connection between these two thoughts.
I really like ice cream; my favorite flavor is vanilla.

4. Subject-verb agreement
I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are
I have, you have, he/she/it has, we have, they have
I work, you work, he/she/it works, we work, they work

If you're confused about this point, see my earlier post on the topic.

5. Confusing constructions
Make sure that you write what you mean. It's easy to get wrapped up in fancy verbiage and crazy punctuation and completely lose sight of your point. Keep your sentences clear and simple. Use the active voice instead of the passive voice to make your sentences direct and interesting. For example, instead of writing "He was robbed by muggers" try writing "The muggers robbed him."

There are many other hang-ups in written English, but these are the very first things I look for when I proof-read a piece of writing. If you start looking for these pitfalls every time you read, and also think about them as you write, it will become second nature to automatically correct them.

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