GrammarPhile Blog

8 Proofreading Red Flags

Posted by Terri Porter   Jul 16, 2015 6:30:00 AM

red flagWith the celebration of the American flag on Independence Day and the recent flap around the Confederate battle flag, now seems a good time to talk about red flags in proofreading — the sneaky errors in documents that are easy to overlook, especially if you’re self-editing.

You’ve no doubt heard the refrain that you should never proof your own work because you’re just too close to it to see its flaws. Love is blind, as the saying goes. According to Muphry’s law, the editorial version of Murphy’s law: “If a mistake is as plain as the nose on your face, everyone can see it but you.”

With that in mind, we discuss eight areas to which you should pay particular attention when editing your own or someone else’s work.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning …

… a very good place to start. Why? Because that’s where readers are most likely to notice errors: in headlines or titles, in first lines and first paragraphs, on the first page of copy or in the first few lines on a new page. Be particularly vigilant when reviewing these areas.

Where There’s Smoke …

… there’s fire. When you find a mistake, pay close attention because there likely will be others. Errors tend to cluster like ants at a picnic.

Know Your ABCs …

… and your 123s too. Check alphabetical and numerical lists to make sure they’re in the right order. Doing so is easy in short lists when each item appears on a new line. It gets a little trickier when a sequence is spread over multiple pages, whether in the main text or in numbered/lettered headings, page numbers, footnote numbers, figure/table numbers, etc. Also be sure to check sequences in flowcharts and other graphics to ensure they make sense and follow the same order as any corresponding sequences described in the text.

When Your Days Are Numbered …

… consult a calendar. Really. References to days of the week that don’t correspond to their accompanying dates in text are common.

Nine Times out of 11 …

… numeral misprints are overlooked. Well, maybe not that often. But it’s a common mistake. Not only should you double-check figures and numbers (especially those with dollar signs) in text and tables to ensure they correspond to any text that discusses them (or that they make sense standing alone), but also use a calculator to confirm any percentages, fractions and totals given. Look for any misplaced decimal points.

Two’s Company …

… one’s not allowed. That’s the rule for parentheses, brackets, quotation marks and the like, which travel in pairs. When you see one, make sure it has a companion. The same applies to footnote and table/figure callouts in the text — make sure they have a corresponding reference or illustration.


… isn’t always. Text in all capital letters or in a font or style (italics, bold, etc.) that’s different from the main text can be harder to read. The same goes for white/light text on a dark background. Slow your reading in these areas to catch any mistakes (did you notice it?).

Those in Glass Houses …

… shouldn’t throw editorial stones. In other words, if you’re writing about proofreading, editing, grammar, spelling and the like, be extra careful in your review, keeping in mind these additional tenets of Muphry’s law (thanks to John Bangsund, Society of Editors, Melbourne, Australia):

  1. If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.
  2. If an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book.
  3. The stronger the sentiment expressed in (1) and (2), the greater the fault.
  4. Any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

What other red flags do you watch out for when proofing your own or someone else’s work? Let us know in the comments below.


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Topics: common mistakes, common proofreading mistakes, proofreading red flags

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