Today is National Proofreading Day. Set up by Judy Beaver in 2011, the date was chosen in honour of her mother, Flo, whose birthday was 8 March. Flo loved to correct people, so Judy thought it would be the perfect day to promote and celebrate error-free writing. National Proofreading Day aims to encourage us to slow down and take the time to proofread our work, and to thank our editors (and proofreaders – the two jobs are separate and distinct) if we use them.
In 1911 the Encyclopaedia Britannica (rather cheekily, I think) referred to the work of the proofreader as “frequently monotonous and uninteresting”, an assertion that I disagree with given the complexities of the English language. Encyclopaedia Britannica also described the job of the proofreader as:
“the art or business of correcting for the press the printed “proofs” of articles or books set in type before publication. The special business of a proof-reader, attached to a printing house, is to correct these proofs before they are shown to the author; he is an intermediary between the compositor and the author, and as such his functions may vary according to his capacities.”
The date of this entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us that the proofreader was being regularly used in the early part of the 20th century. It would also seem that proofreading was deemed important throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries too, as authors would pass their work around their circle of friends to make corrections. At universities written work would be hung in the quadrangles “for public inspection and correction”. It was, though, the growth of printing that brought with it a “demand for systematic proof-reading”. (If you are interested in reading more about the growth of the printing presses and how reading became a working-class leisure pursuit, I can highly recommend Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain by Judith Flanders and Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–1950: A Study of the Literature Produced for the Working Classes in Early Victorian Urban England by Louis James.)
A notorious proofreading error
It is easy to understand why there was a need for a system of proofreading within publishing before the advent of the technologies we use to write today. One of the most notorious proofreading errors occurred in the 1631 edition of the Bible when the ‘not’ was omitted from “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, resulting in it being nicknamed the Wicked Bible. These days, though, I’m sure many people wonder if there continues to be a need for the human proofreader given the spellcheckers and predictive text that permeate our writing lives.
The human proofreader is needed
English is a complicated language and nothing demonstrates this more than the homophone. Those words that sound the same but have different meanings or spellings (for example, taught and taut), escape the word processor’s spellcheck if they are spelled correctly. However, they may be used in the wrong context as a computer can’t pick up on the nuances of meaning. This is just one example of why the human proofreader is invaluable.
Proofreading encompasses more than looking for typos and again calls for a human eye. As we saw earlier, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica referred to proofreading as an ‘art’ and to an extent this is a fitting word to use. Professional proofreading involves the use of house style guides, the search for consistency, and the avoidance of repetition (this has become even more important now that published material is often transferred to audio, as we have seen in the rise of the audiobook), along with knowing how to fit within certain publishing conventions such as the setting out of dialogue.
Changes in spelling
English language also ebbs and flows when it comes to trends within the actual spelling of words. A prime example appears in this article: note the hyphenation of ‘proof-reading’ used by the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica compared to my lack of a hyphen as I follow the modern spelling set out in the Oxford English Dictionary.
With the rise of the internet and the access to publishing this brings to all of us, it is now probably more important than ever that we take the time to proofread our work. We are all publishers to a certain extent through the use of social media, and our thumbs can often be responsible for inadvertent typos as we grapple with tiny keyboards. My one piece of advice on National Proofreading Day would be that it is notoriously difficult to proofread your own work, so take a little time and set your written work aside for a brief period before coming back to check it.
If you are interested in becoming a proofreader for North East Bylines, please email [email protected]