Notes from a proofreader: check for these words

WARNING: This post contains language some readers may find offensive. But we’re all adults, right?

You learn a lot when you work in the editorial profession. I’ve proofread texts on subjects from self-hypnosis to the Industrial Revolution, and they’ve all taught me something new. Some of the things I have learnt are very specific in nature, but some are more general and it is those I am planning to share on my blog.


A big clock. Image: Pixabay

This post is about words you should probably do a global search for before you declare your editing and proofreading process complete. I knew about some of these from my training, but they pop up in real life with alarming regularity. “What are you on about, Hannah?” I hear you say. Well, I’m talking about misspelling words such as public, count and shirt. Leave a letter out of one of those and the result is a tad embarrassing. And it happens. I’ve seen it in real proofs for real books.

This isn’t an exhaustive list,  but I’ll add to it as I discover more. I suggest adding a global search for these words to your list of editing and proofreading tasks:

  • Cock (when you meant clock)
  • Cunt (when you really, really meant count)
  • Fag (instead of flag)
  • Poof (when it should have been proof – particularly a danger if you write proofreader a lot)
  • Pubic (when you meant public)
  • Shit (instead of shirt)

Obviously, you will sometimes deliberately use those words, but coming across an unintended use of pubic is never ideal. They are hard to spot because they are so similar to the intended word and we often read what we expect to be there, not what is actually there. Our brains will just fill in the missing letter. Spellcheck is not going to flag these errors for your attention, so checking for them is something you need to do manually (unless you have specialist software to do it for you). And if you only check one (although I’m not sure why you would only do one) it should be pubic. That one likes to pop up quite often.

Are there any words with missing letters that have left you red-faced? Let me know in the comments!


Reasons I provide a sign-off form

This post expands on something I wrote on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) forum a while ago. It was in response to a fellow member’s query about how to get feedback from clients, and I’m sure anyone who works as a freelance or on a project-by-project basis will know how difficult this can be.

A sign-off form is a relatively new addition to my documentation process, but it has proved to be an effective tool for gaining feedback. Previously, I was worried about asking for my client’s opinion of my work. (My thought stream sounded something like this: what if they hate my work? What if they hate me? What if they tell everyone I’m useless and I never get any work again and I starve to death and am eaten by my cats? Or worse, I have to go back to working in admin. Or retail.) But over time I have realised that isn’t very conducive to personal and professional progression. And, actually, most people are nice and want to say nice things. The client sign-off form has facilitated a significant boost to my confidence.

feedbackI first started using the sign-off form as a condition of my professional indemnity insurance (my insurer prefers that there is a documented sign-off where the client accepts the work I have done). The form simply asks the client to confirm that they have received the project and that it has been completed according to the brief and any terms and conditions. I have then added space (a comment box) for the client to use to leave any feedback they might want to give. There are two main reasons I added that box:

  1. It’s an easy way to get a testimonial. I find it awkward to ask directly, and it doesn’t put any pressure on the client to provide one. They simply can if they wish. (But I make it clear on the form that I might use their feedback for promotional purposes unless they tell me they would prefer otherwise.)
  2. I want to know if the way I have the approached the project is the best way for them. This is particularly important for clients I hope to develop a long-lasting relationship with. Some publishers like things done slightly differently to others, which might not have been mentioned in the brief. If I know what the client likes, I can do it. The form signals to the client that I want, and am prepared for, constructive feedback.

Nearly every client I have sent a sign-off form to has returned it, and returned it with positive feedback. I’ve had positive comments about the use of the form itself, so I’m reassured that it comes across as a thoughtful and professional document. This has led me to consider, so far, that the sign-off form has been a success. Once you have the template ready to go, it takes hardly any time at all to produce, and it is quick for the client to complete while still allowing for more specific detail than tick-boxes or similar.

Any fellow freelancers have suggestions for effective ways to get useful feedback? I’d love to know.

Could BSI marks help you?

A great deal of editing and proofreading is done onscreen, but that doesn’t mean that professional editors and proofreaders have stopped using proof-correction marks. The UK has one set of industry-recognised symbols: British Standards Institution (BSI) marks for copy preparation and proof correction. Other regions have their own industry standard symbols or may also use the BSI marks. In case you haven’t seen BSI marks, here are a few in use:


They are basically a type of code used to save time, save space and improve clarity. There is often very little space to mark corrections on proofs, and the corrections have to be understandable to everyone in the publishing process (particularly the typesetter). I find they save a lot of time compared to writing instructions out in full, and this led me to think that they are a resource that some authors might find useful.

BSI marks aren’t any use if you are editing your work in Word or a similar program, but if you like to edit and proofread on hard copy, I think they might be worth dabbling with. Instead of wordy scribbles, you could have concise marks. Proof-correction marks are designed to convey exactly what needs to be done in a simple and clear manner. They don’t take up much space and can comfortably accommodate several changes in close proximity to each other. Pages look much cleaner and less cluttered.

The principal symbols are simple to understand and even easier to put on paper. Marking an insertion or deletion is quick and effortless. It doesn’t take long for it to become second nature. And if you are working on the final layout, there are efficient symbols for moving and adjusting matter. You should no longer forget what it was you were trying to tell yourself to change because the symbols will make it obvious.

For professional editors and proofreaders, it is important to learn how to use the marks to the correct industry standards. For writers marking up their own work, it just matters that you are consistent. If you would like to give BSI marks a go, you can buy a summary sheet from the British Standards Institution or from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (it’s cheaper from the SfEP). You may also find it handy to be familiar with proof-correction marks when working with editors, proofreaders and other publishing professionals.

Do you use proof-correction symbols? Or have you developed your own mark-up system?

Further information:


Ise and ize endings

One of the first and basic questions I ask when taking on a new project is whether my client has used -ise or -ize word endings. One of the most important aspects of proofreading is ensuring consistency – I’m not just looking for “right” or “wrong” spellings.

SpellingThe use of -ise and -ize word endings is generally a matter of choice, except for some words where a certain spelling is compulsory. For example, advertise, devise, improvise, prise and surprise must all be spelled with -ise. (If you spelled prise with -ize you would be using a different word!)

The compulsory -ise spelling is usually for words that are derived from French. A legitimate choice arises for some words because -ize corresponds to the Greek infinitive ending which made its way into English via Latin and French sources. In French, the spelling was adapted to -ise and many English writers followed the French lead. It is important then to note that, while -ize is the preferred ending in American English, the use of -ize is not an Americanism nor is it restricted only to American writers. The -ize ending has been a feature of English since the 16th century.

English users therefore have the choice of whether to use -ise or -ize endings. If you are working to a particular style, you will often find that a preferred form has already been designated. For example, Oxford University Press traditionally uses -ize spellings.

The most important points here are as follows:

  • Not all words have the legitimate choice between -ise and -ize endings. If you aren’t sure, a good dictionary will help.
  • For all other words, it doesn’t really matter which form you choose. However, it does matter that you are consistent about using your preferred form (and that you tell your editorial professional which form you chose!).


  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. Jeremy Butterfield
  • New Hart’s Rules, 2nd Edition

It’s fine to use ‘Union Jack’

Union JackMany people insist that a British Union flag may only be referred to as a Union Jack when it is flown on a ship.

This is not the case. It is true that a jack is a small flag used to indicate the nationality of a ship, but the widespread use of Union Jack is legitimate. The Flag Institute explains why:

“From early in its life the Admiralty itself frequently referred to the [Union] flag as the Union Jack, whatever its use, and in 1902 an Admiralty Circular announced that Their Lordships had decided that either name could be used officially. Such use was given Parliamentary approval in 1908 when it was stated that ‘the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag’.”

The OED states that Union Jack is now the usual term to describe the national flag of the United Kingdom.

It also is worth noting that the Union Jack has a correct way up. The wide white diagonal stripe should be above the red diagonal stripe on the half of the flag that is closest to the flagpole. (This is because the St. Andrew’s Cross takes precedence over the St. Patrick’s Cross.)


  • The Flag Institute
  • The Oxford English Dictionary Online

i before e except after c

SpellingI was fairly young when I found that the rule ‘i before e except after c’ sometimes led my spelling astray. I remember being very disappointed that adults had told me something that wasn’t completely true.

It would probably have helped if someone had told me it is spelling advice that only really applies when the combination of i and e is pronounced ee:


If the combination of i and e is pronounced ay, the rule does not apply:


The rule also does not apply if the combination is pronounced i:


Or if the i and the e are pronounced separately:


There are some words that simply do not obey the rule, and these just have to be learnt:


The simple and general explanation for the exceptions is that many of those words were formed differently (from two or more parts) or come from another language. I would have been placated by that.


  • Fowler, H. W. and Butterfield, J. (2015) Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • New Hart’s rules: the handbook of style for writers and editors (2014) 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Proofreading guide for students

Late last year I wrote and published a series of posts on proofreading advice. This is the first of those posts: Proofreading advice: take a break.

GuideI have put a lot of that advice into a PDF guide that is now available on my Resources and Information for Students pages. You can also download it by clicking on the image opposite.

My 4-page guide has been written primarily for students. I enjoy working on dissertations and theses, but not all students can use the services of a proofreader. If you aren’t allowed to use professional help, or if money is tight, I hope this guide will be of some assistance.

It contains four steps to help you prepare for proofreading your own work, as well as a list of common errors to look out for. The common errors include mixed -ize/-ise endings, incorrect use of apostrophes, and references that aren’t according to style.

Authors may not find all of the advice relevant to them, but they will probably find some of the information of use.

‘Practice’ or ‘practise’?

Confusion over the use of practice and practise is common. For most varieties of English, practice is the spelling for the noun and practise is the spelling for the verb.


I practise every day.


It is my practice to write every day.

If it is a thing, use practice. If it is an action, use practise. I find it helpful to link them to advice and advise. Most English speakers instantly know the difference:


I advice advise you to stop.


I gave you some advise advice.

The word with the -ice ending is a noun. The word ending with -ise is a verb. And you can apply that to practice and practise.

In American English, practice is the dominant spelling for the noun and the verb. However, the distinction is sometimes observed.

Irregular verbs

A verb is irregular if its past tense and past participle do not follow the regular pattern of adding -ed (or -d) to the base form.

Regular verbs:

arrive – past tense arrived, past participle arrived
cook – past tense cooked, past participle cooked

Irregular verbs:

eat – past tense ate, past participle eaten
lose – past tense lost, past participle lost

PencilMost native English speakers have a good grasp of which verbs they can’t stick -ed on the end of. To native ears, forms such as I catched or I have readed sound childish or unnatural. It isn’t always as obvious for non-native speakers.

Native speakers do sometimes find it difficult to pick the correct form for past tense and past participle. For example, is rang or rung the past participle of ring?

Simple present: I ring
Simple past tense: I rang
Past participle: I have/had rung

There isn’t really a rule or tip I can give to help here, except maybe to list all the forms. And so that’s what I have done. You can download a comprehensive (I think) list of irregular verb forms by visiting my Resources page or clicking this link: Irregular verbs.

‘Affect’ and ‘effect’

EffectAffect and effect are often used incorrectly, particularly in student essays. In most contexts, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. When you affect something, it produces an effect – and I think that is where some of the confusion stems from.


Affect as a verb means ‘to influence or change’ or ‘to make a difference to’, and it is the most common use of affect.

The new rules will affect thousands of people.

It can sometimes mean ‘to pretend’ or ‘to take on or adopt something pretentiously’.

I affected a happy disposition.
He was known to affect an American accent.

It has limited usage (usually related to psychology) as noun referring to an emotion or feeling.

His reaction displayed a happy affect.


Effect as a verb means ‘to do’ or ‘to bring about’.

I will effect change.

But the most common usage of effect is as a noun meaning ‘a result’.

It had an immediate effect.

The a, an or the test

If you struggle to work out which word you need to use, this simple test might help. Does a, an or the appear in front of it? Or if you inserted a, an or the would the sentence make sense?

The effect was insignificant.
It could an affect your lifestyle.

If the answer is yes, you probably need effect (the noun). If the answer is no, you probably need affect (the verb).