Episode 21: October 20, 2006
Today's topic is proofreading.
Here's a question from Corinne that's pertinent to a news story that came out yesterday:
I have always had a problem of with my writing I forget the word "the" or I forget to put an "ed" on the end of a word, and it's not because I don't know to do it, but as I type I just seem to forget to put that there. I continue to read over it, I don't find anything, but this has come back to bite me a couple times. So I am wondering if you have any helpful suggestions that you might be able to provide me for how I could improve my writing skills, so when I'm actually typing something, when I go back and reread it that if I forget the word "the" or "of" or something to that extent, that I actually find it. It's always hard to go back and proof your own writing. And especially with today's technology age, when you have to send out e-mails rapidly with only a response back, I was wondering if there's a way, or something that you do in particular, that helps you with that function.
Well Corinne, the Bank of Kazakh* is probably wondering the same thing, because Reuters and the BBC are reporting that someone at the institution misspelled the word bank on its newly released notes, and they were printed and entered into circulation. So, they have a big, embarrassing proofreading problem.
Before we go any further, I do have some tips, but I also have to say that I feel like a fraud for covering this topic, because I make as many errors as everyone else, and sometimes typos slip through. I try so hard, but typos seem to evade me with impunity. As my father would say, "If you miss one typo, all the others will know," implying that I will forever be an easy mark for sneaky, calculating typos that are out to get me.
So, given my long history with typos, it has become my belief that it's nearly impossible for someone to accurately proofread their own writing and be consistently successful. Think about it: If I produce 1,000 words a day, and I let 1 typo slip by every week, that's actually a 99.986% success rate. If you think about it in terms of letters rather than words, since most typos happen at the level of letters, that 1 typo a week equates to about a 99.997% success rate.
Anyway, I know that's kind of a silly example because for native English speakers every letter isn't a typo waiting to happen, and typos are bad and can get you in a lot of trouble; but my point is that even though you should do your very best to catch them, I also think it's important not to beat yourself up too badly when they happen and to realize that human error is inevitable.
How to Avoid Typos
The real key to avoiding typos is to have someone else proofread your copy, and this actually also relates to a question that at least one other person asked, which is if I could discuss the poor state of writing on the Internet.
In addition to the fact that most people don't get a good grammar education, I believe a significant reason you see so many typos and errors on web pages is that most web copy never gets reviewed by anyone but the writer before it goes live. By contrast, copy that you see in newspapers and magazines (in addition to being written by professional writers) goes through an extensive editing process. After a writer turns in a story, it's usually reviewed by multiple editors, including the department editor who assigned it, a senior editor, and a copy editor. Of course these editors all have more training in grammar and writing than the average person writing a blog, and even if you consider text on a commercial website, in my experience, these companies tend to run lean editorial departments and may only have one editor looking at copy before it goes live.
So my primary advice on avoiding typos is to have someone else proofread your work. On the other hand, I know this isn't possible for things like e-mail or rushed projects, so here are four proofreading tips I've collected over the years.
Read your work backwards**, starting with the last sentence and working your way in reverse order to the beginning. Supposedly this works better than reading through from the beginning because your brain knows what you meant to write, so you tend to skip over errors when you're reading forwards.
Read your work out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases the odds that you'll find a typo. This works quite well for me, and most of the typos that make it into my transcripts seem to be things you wouldn't catch by reading aloud, such as misplaced commas.
Always proofread a printed version of your work. I don't know why, but if I try to proofread on a computer monitor I always miss more errors than if I print out a copy and go over it on paper.
Give yourself some time. If possible, let your work sit for a while before you proofread it. I'm just speculating here, but it seems to me that if you are able to clear your mind and approach the writing from a fresh perspective, then your brain is more able to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing the words you think you wrote.
That's all on proofreading. If anyone has other proofreading tips, please post them in the comment section below. I can always use more proofreading tips, and I'm sure everyone else would appreciate it too!
Moving on to another topic, two people have asked me to clarify the pronunciation of the word etcetera. It is pronounced et-cetera, with a t sound, and not ek-cetera as I apparently said in a previous show. Two of my dictionaries define etcetera as meaning "and so forth," and it's my understanding that in Latin, et cetera means "and the rest" or "and the others," and it is written out as two words: et and cetera. Although the use of etcetera in English is obviously adopted from the Latin phrase, you write it out as one word, etcetera, in English. [Note: See my correction and clarification in the comments. GG] You generally use it at the end of a list of items to indicate that the list could contain more items and for some reason you didn't list them. Here's a title that uses etcetera: "Question words: who, what, where, etc." And, etcetera is abbreviated etc. So, I've said etcetera enough times now that I hope everyone is clear on the pronunciation.
As always this is Grammar Girl. I've included links to pictures of the Cyrillc and Kazakh alphabet because a mix-up between the two was the source of the error on the Kazakh bank notes. There's also a new poll in the Grammar Girl section of quickanddirtytips.com asking whether you think you are a good proofreader or a bad proofreader. Finally, thank you for listening, and for participating in the audience survey. There have been enough responses now that the results are statistically significant, which is great; and also thank you for your reviews and donations. I really appreciate every little thing you all do!