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.

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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!

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‘Foreword’ and ‘forward’

Foreword and forward are often listed as homophones, but whether this is true for your own speech probably depends on regional variations. I pronounce them differently, but I believe that when spoken in some other (particularly American) accents they sound the same.

Foreword

  • an introductory statement to a book

Forward

  • directed, travelling or moving aheadforward-arrow
  • at, in, near or towards the front
  • onward in order to make progress
  • bold, disrespectful or overfamiliar
  • well developed or advanced
  • of or relating to the future or favouring change
  • an attacking player in various sports
  • towards or at a place ahead or in advance
  • to send on to a destination
  • to advance or promote

My tip: a foreword is composed using words.


Sources:

  • Collins English Dictionary, 2009
  • Oxford Dictionaries Online
  • Pixabay (image)

‘Leak’ and ‘leek’

This post is inspired by one of my favourite GIFs and probably the only part of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 I can actually remember: “Ahh! There’s a leek in the boat!”. I’ve spent more time rewatching that clip than I care to admit.

Leak and leek are, of course, homophones. The similar spelling means that they are frequently used in place of each other.

Leak

  • a crack or hole that allows the accidental escape or entrance of liquid, gas, radiation, etc.; to allow the accidental escape or entrance of contents through a hole or crack
  • the escaping or entering liquid, etc.
  • a disclosure of secret information; to make secret information public
  • an act or instance of leaking

leekLeek

  • a plant of the onion family with a slender cylindrical white bulb and flat green overlapping leaves

My tip: leeks are green. And if you would like to describe something that resembles a leek, I have just the word: porraceous.


Sources:

  • Collins English Dictionary, 2009
  • Oxford Dictionaries Online

‘Sail’ and ‘sale’

Sail and sale are homophones. I suspect incorrect usage usually occurs by accident or because the writer is more familiar with one word than the other.

Sail

  • a sheet of material used to catch the wind and move a vessel over waterSail
  • a voyage or trip on a ship or boat; to voyage or travel on a ship or boat
  • to navigate or control a ship
  • to begin a voyage
  • something that resembles a sail (in shape or function)
  • to move along smoothly and rapidly or with confidence

Sale

  • the exchange of goods or property for money
  • an event or period during which goods are sold at reduced prices

My tip: a sale requires money; a sail requires wind.


Sources:

  • Collins English Dictionary
  • Oxford Dictionaries Online

‘Vial’ and ‘vile’

This post is inspired by my cat. I have several vials of insulin in the fridge for him; they are currently of no use because he is now an ex-diabetic cat. (All fingers and toes crossed he stays that way!) But the long dead and decomposing bird he brought me to celebrate was vile.

DSC03995-BLUEVial

  • a small container or bottle (typically cylindrical) used for holding liquids (usually medicines)

Vile

  • extremely unpleasant or bad

My tip: a vial is a container.

‘Mail’ and ‘male’

This week marks a return to homophones. I find that male is occasionally used when mail would be appropriate. I have borrowed one of the definitions below because I don’t think I can explain it more succinctly.

Post boxMail

  • letters and parcels etc. sent by post
  • to send something by post
  • flexible armour made of metal rings, links or plates

Male

  • ‘of or denoting the sex that produces gametes, especially spermatozoa, with which a female may be fertilized or inseminated to produce offspring’ (Oxford Dictionaries)
  • a male person, plant or animal

Mail is also sometimes used as a short form of email. Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple tip to help anyone who might struggle to use mail and male correctly; if you have a suggestion for a memory aid, please share it below!


Sources:

  • Collins English Dictionary
  • Oxford Dictionaries Online

‘Despatch’ or ‘dispatch’?

This post is a little different from my usual notes on commonly confused words. Some writers worry about whether they should use despatch or dispatch, but this is an easy dilemma to solve – just pick the spelling you prefer. Both forms are legitimate.

Despatch/dispatch

  • Lettersto send off to a destination; the sending of something or someone to a destination
  • to perform or deal with a task or problem quickly and efficiently
  • to kill; the killing of something or someone
  • an official communication or report

Dispatch is the older form and is often preferred for that reason. It is also the form that, according to Fowler’s, is regarded as ‘etymologically more correct’. Despatch is a variant that is usually traced back to Samuel Johnson; his dictionary of 1755 listed the des- form despite Johnson himself always using the dis- form. It is therefore thought that the spelling despatch was originally an error.

However, it is now completely acceptable to use either form – although the use of despatch is often associated with British English.

(But I prefer dispatch.)


Sources:

‘Colleague’ and ‘college’

I sometimes see college used when the writer means colleague. I think this is usually due to a typing error or uncertainty about how to spell colleague. Unfortunately, this is a spelling error that a spellchecker won’t be able to help with.

ColleaguesColleague

  • a person one works with

College

  • an educational institution
  • an organised body within a particular profession

My tip: say the word out loud. You probably wouldn’t spell league as lege.

‘Peasant’ and ‘pheasant’

Two weeks ago I published a post on the homophones nigh and nye. A nye is a flock or brood of pheasants, which leads me to this week’s sometimes confused words: peasant and pheasant. I presume this is often a spelling error rather than real confusion on the part of the writer (especially as peasant and pheasant are not homophones).

Peasant:

  • a poor agricultural worker of low social status or class
  • an ignorant, rude, uncouth, unsophisticated or uncultured personPheasant2

Pheasant:

  • a long-tailed game bird originally native to Asia

My tip: a peasant is a person.

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!).

Sources:

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