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Proofreading for Grammatical Errors Help

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Updated on Aug 10, 2011

Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Proofreading for Grammatical Errors: Write Better Essays Practice Exercises.

Lesson Summary

Before you submit your essay, there's one more important step: proofreading. Good proofreading involves far more than a simple run of spell and grammar check on your computer. In fact, those programs are not foolproof, and therefore, a reliance on them alone to find your errors is a mistake. However, they are not a bad place to start. This lesson explains how to use these tools to your advantage, as well as how to find and correct the most common grammar and mechanics errors.

Studies on grammar- and spell-check programs show that they are more effective when used as a first (not final) step in proofreading. After you've clicked your mouse through grammar and spell check, print out a hard copy of your essay and complete proofreading steps 2 and 3: Check for errors in grammar and mechanics.

Limitations of Spell and Grammar Checkers

There is no excuse for not using spell- and grammar-check programs. They're fast and simple, and catch many common errors. However, they're not foolproof. Spell check has three important limitations you should be aware of:

  1. Non-Word versus Real-Word Errors
  2. Most of us think of spelling errors in the first category—that is, a string of letters that does not make a real word. You might type sevn instead of seven, or th for the. Spell check is an excellent tool for catching these types of mistakes. However, if you are discussing the seven years of piano lessons you have taken, and you leave off the s in the word seven, the result is even, which spell check won't flag, because even is correctly spelled.

    This is known as a real-word error. You have typed a legitimate, correctly spelled word; it's just not the word you meant to type, and it doesn't convey the meaning you intended. Spell check can't find these types of errors.

  3. Proper Nouns
  4. Spell check uses a dictionary that does not include most proper nouns and words in other categories, such as the names of chemicals. You can always add a word or words to the dictionary once you are sure of its spelling, but the first time, you will need to use another source (a reliable print one is best) to verify the spelling.

  5. Errors Spelled Similarly to Other Real Words
  6. If you misspell a word in such a way that it is now closer, letter by letter, to a word other than the one you intended, spell check will probably offer the wrong word as a correction. For example, if your essay includes a coffeehouse scenario, and you type the word expresso, spell check will correct the error with express rather than espresso. Similarly, alot will be corrected to allot. You must pay careful attention to spell check's suggested corrections to ensure the right selection.

Grammar-check programs are also effective but not foolproof. They can make two kinds of mistakes: missing errors, and flagging errors that are actually correct. The first problem, missing errors, is illustrated by the following examples. A grammar check on the following sentence did pick up the subject/verb agreement error (I is), but did not notice the participle error (I studying).

I is ready to take the exam after I studying my notes and the textbook.

Similarly, the punctuation problems in the following sentence were not flagged.

The recipe, calls for fifteen ingredients and, takes too long to prepare.

When grammar check does highlight an error, be aware that it may in fact be correct. But if your knowledge of grammar is limited, you will not know whether to accept grammar check's corrections. To further complicate matters, you may be offered more than one possible correction, and will be asked to choose between them. Unless you are familiar enough with the specific problem, this may be no more than a guess. It is important to understand the type of error highlighted, and get more information if you are not sure about it.

Professional Proofreading Tricks
  1. Take your time. Studies show that waiting at least 20 minutes before proofreading your work can increase your likelihood of finding errors. Get up from your computer, take a break or move on to some other task, and then come back to your writing.
  2. Read backward. Go through your writing from the last word to the first, focusing on each individual word, rather than on the context.
  3. Ask for help. A pair of fresh eyes may find mistakes that you have overlooked dozens of times, and one or more of your colleagues or friends may be better at finding spelling and grammar errors than you are.
  4. Go under cover. Print out a draft copy of your writing, and read it with a blank piece of paper over it, revealing just one sentence at a time. This technique will encourage a careful line-by-line edit.
  5. Watch the speed limit. No matter which proofreading technique(s) you use, slow down. Reading at your normal speed will not give you enough time to spot errors.
  6. Know thyself. Keep track of the kinds of errors you typically make. Common spelling errors can be caught by spell check if you add the word or words to the spell-check dictionary. When you know what you are looking for, you are more likely to find it.
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