Why editing and proofreading should never be dismissed

“If a mistake is as plain as the nose on your face, then everyone can see it but you.”

So wrote David Marsh, former production editor of The Guardian. He goes on to explain, “Our readers will always notice errors in a title, in headings, in the first paragraph of anything, and in the top lines of a new page. These are the very places where authors, editors and proofreaders are most likely to make mistakes.”

Another oft-cited adage is Muphry’s law, a deliberate misspelling of Murphy’s law, which states, “If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

But does a bit of bad grammar or a typo really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Marsh points out that if a writer doesn’t appear to understand the basic rules of written English, “readers are entitled to wonder what else you don’t understand, and with what authority you purport to write something you think they ought to read.”

Ever heard of typo squatting? Also known as url hijacking or domain mimicry, it relates to the practice of mistyping the names of popular websites and landing on ‘typosquatter’ sites…which just happen to be littered with Google ads. Harvard researchers have estimated that Google earns about US$497 million each year from this.

Failing to proofread your work for typos can prove rather costly, as Mizuho Securities, part of Japanese financial services group, found to its detriment. The group lost US$340m in 2005 when it listed 610,000 shares of a recruitment company called J-Com for one yen each, rather than selling the shares for 610,000 yen each. The Tokyo Stock Exchange refused to reverse the mistake.

Potatoe, Potato

It can also make you look really stupid, a perception that can be hard to shake, as former US Vice President Dan Quayle found to his detriment. In 1992 he visited a primary school in New Jersey and stepped in to help facilitate a spelling bee competition. William Figueroa, age 12, was called to the board to demonstrate how to spell “potato.” He carefully spelled the word correctly on the board, but the VP encouraged him to add one more letter on the end to make the spelling “correct”. Quayle later claimed he had been relying on cue cards at the time rather than his better judgement, but he was widely ridiculed as a result. Watch the recording of this historical gaffe here.

Brand reputation is another valuable attribute that risks being ruined by typos. No brand wants to be associated with an ad that leaves the ‘f’ out of ‘shifts’ as was the case in this McDonalds sign.

Traditionally, proofreading is a separate task from editing, and should be treated as such, but there are benefits to consistently proofreading whilst editing. The problems with caring too little about your work are obvious, but the problem with caring too much about your writing, is that you second guess your abilities, obsess over your drafts, and delay publishing until your posts are perfect, which is why it’s important to split the two and advisable to have someone else proofread your work as well.

Some common grammatical errors that confuse people are:

  • Compared with or compared to. – comparing with implies deciding which is better, whereas comparing to, implies showing a likeness with another
  • That or which – if the sentence doesn’t need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which. If it does, use that.
    Example – My book that has a torn cover is on the table
    Example My book, which has a torn cover, is in the table
  • Who or whom – normally “who” is the subject and “whom” is the object of the verb.
    If you can replace the “who” or “whom” with “he/she/they” then it should be “who”; if you can replace it with “him/her/them” then you want “whom”.

Here are some top tips for proofreading:

  • Proofread backwards
  • Read the text out loud
  • Stop at every punctuation mark
  • Check for one type of error at a time
  • Scan the first word of each para to check for repetition in opening phrases
  • Look for repeated information
  • Verify spellings of people’s names, company names, product names, titles, days, dates, and times of events

No matter how many times you check your work, mistakes do happen. Fortunately, in this digital age it is easier to rectify your online errors. The New York Times claimed to have published over 4,100 corrections on digital articles in 2018. Typos can be a great source of amusement and this New York Times article looks back on some of its more humorous typos of 2018.

Michelle is a Media Relations Manager and Sub-editor at Rothko. When she’s not checking everyone’s spelling and grammar, Michelle tries to befriend the media and learn the names of their favourite soccer teams. She usually gets this wrong.