How foolproof is your spellchecker?

Using a spellchecker is a convenient way to quickly check and correct errors in a text. Running it over your email before you send it or over your blog post before you publish it is highly recommendable. But does it find all the mistakes?

A spellchecker is ‘a computer program which checks the spelling of words in files of text, typically by comparison with a stored list of words’ ( And therein lies the weak spot: it checks against a list of words. So what about words that are on that list and spelled correctly – but not where you want them? Have a look at the following ten examples that would pass a spellchecker with flying colours. Can you spot the error in each of them?

Have a go – beat the spellchecker!

1. Could you send me the text in an edible format?
2. During a conversion between three or more people, one person often unwittingly takes on the role of the moderator.
3. After giving birth, all he wanted was to hold her baby in her arms.
4. We are happy to except your offer and look forward to working with you.
5. It was all – in all – a successful launch.
6. ‘Let’s eat nan,’ she said, and sat down at the table.
7. The company is implementing the changes across all sectors and it’s ever expanding network of suppliers.
8. A fixed space can be used to keep two words together that is separated by a space.
9. Do something great – everyday!
10. By spotting only one the ten errors, you have already beaten the spellchecker.

You can find the answers at the bottom of this post.

A spellchecker is not a proofreader

It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security with a spellchecker. After all, it is supposed to check your spelling, so you would think that it will find any mistake. But as you can see in these examples, a spellchecker cannot find the error if the spelling of the word in the text matches the spelling of the word on its list. It cannot tell if a word is missing or in the wrong place. No wonder – it is only a program and cannot read and understand the text as such.

Human proofreaders, on the other hand, not only check spelling and grammar, they also read the text for sense. They don’t just look at the individual words but at the whole picture. This is why a trained proofreader can spot correctly spelled words in the wrong context and other inconsistencies. So if you really want to be on the safe side, don’t just rely on a spellchecker – run it past a proofreader as well.


1. editable [not: edible]
2. conversation [not: conversion]
3. all she wanted [not: he]
4. accept [not: except]
5. – all in all – [not: all – in all –]
6. ‘Let’s eat, nan,’ [not: ‘Let’s eat nan,’]
7. its [not: it’s]
8. that are [not: that is]
9. every day [not: everyday]
10. one of the [not: one the]

Glossary of proofreading terms

Linefeeds, widows and en dashes – ever wondered what your proofreader is trying to tell you? Proofreading terms can be puzzling if you don’t know what they mean. Here are the basic terms explained.

Thicker style of > type. The individual headings in this glossary are written in bold letters.

The word “September” starts with a capital letter. Writing something “in capitals” means spelling it out in big, capital letters: LIKE THAT.

To write or print in > capital letters or to begin a word with a capital letter.

Closed up
Punctuation with no space on either side: 3–4 p.m. There is no space between the numbers and the dash.

Em dash
The really long dash. Longer than the > en dash. Always used > closed up, either as punctuation instead of commas or > parentheses (It was—all in all—a successful launch.) or to indicate interrupted speech (“What the—”, he gasped.).

En dash
The medium-length dash – used > closed up to form ranges (page 12–23) or relations (Paris–Dakar rally); used > spaced as punctuation instead of a colon, brackets or commas (It was – all in all – a successful launch).

Fixed space
Used to keep two words together that are separated by a space. Often used between numbers and units (50 mg) so that they don’t get separated by a line break.

Name of a > type with a specific design; also called > typeface. “Times New Roman” or “Arial” are examples of different fonts.

Hard return
Key on the computer keyboard that starts a new line (the “Enter”or “Return” key); also called a > linefeed.

House style
Company-specific guidelines for spelling, terminology, hyphenation etc. Often collated in a > style sheet for copywriters and proofreaders to maintain a consistent style in all written texts.

The shortest dash. Can be used to form compound words, e.g. short-term, wide-ranging, pick-me-up (hard hyphen). Also indicates the division of a word at the end of a line (soft hyphen). Contrary to popular belief, the hyphen is not to be used as punctuation (use the > en dash or > em dash instead).

When a line or a block of text is set further away from the margin than the main text, it is indented.

> Type that slopes to the right. If you really want to stress something, you could write the word in italic script for emphasis. The links in this glossary are written in italic.

A text is justified if the margins on both sides are even. All full lines have the same length. Often found in newspaper columns and printed text because it looks neat.

Two or more letters joined together to form a single character, e.g. æ, ff, fi, ffl. Perhaps a bit old-fashioned these days, but some > types still use them to look pretty.

Starting a new line by hitting the “Return” (or “Enter”) key; distance between two lines of text, also called line spacing.

Lower case
Lower-case letters are letters that are not > capitalized. All of the words in the previous sentence are lower case, except for the word “Lower”, which starts with an upper-case letter “L”.

The first line of a new paragraph at the foot of a page. Should ideally be moved to the next page to join the rest of the paragraph it belongs to.

Pair of round brackets (such as these).

Parenthesis (plural: parentheses)
Word or phrase inserted into a sentence as an addition, usually marked by brackets, dashes or commas on either side: Nobody, not even the owner, expected this horse to win.

The regular upright > type or font style (such as this one) that texts are usually written in, as opposed to the > bold or > italic type.

Run on
Continuation; connecting two lines or paragraphs that had been separated before, for example if a sentence had been split unintentionally by a > hard return.

With a space on either side. Some punctuation is used with a space on either side – such as this en dash.

Latin for “let it stand”. Usually marked in form of a few dots underneath a correction made in error. Means to leave the text as it is. Not so much used anymore in digital proofreading, where you can simply delete a correction if it is wrong.

Style sheet
List of instructions about grammar or spelling preferences and other style-related matters, for example with regard to hyphenation, capitalization or word endings such as -ise or -ize.

Take back and take over
To correct a bad word break such as “leg- end”, you can either take back the second part to keep the entire word in the first line or take over the first part and move it to the next line.

If you swap around words or letters that are in the wrong order, you transpose them. In this exmaple, you need to transpose the letters m and a to form the word “example”.

Another word for character or letter. Originally a printing term for a piece of metal with a raised letter or character (which you can also find on an old typewriter).

Name of a > type with a specific design; also called > font. “Times New Roman” or “Arial” are examples of different typefaces.

The margin on the left side of the text is even (aligned) and the margin on the right is uneven (ragged). The lines have different lengths, but the spaces between the words are all the same size. Usually used for online texts (such as this one) and emails, as it is easier to read on screen.

Upper case
See > lower case.

A short last line of a paragraph (just a few words) spilling over to the top of the next page. Should be tucked under the paragraph it belongs to, if possible.

Are there any other proofreading terms you are not sure about? Let me know! I will try and answer them.

Proofreading or revision? Two often confused terms in translation

Whenever I get asked to ‘proofread’ something that involves a translation, I make sure to ask what the client actually wants me to do. Should I check the translation against the source text to make sure the translation is correct and fit for its intended purpose? Or should I check the text for spelling and grammar errors?

The former would be a revision, the latter a proofreading task. These two terms often get mixed up in the context of translation. Confusing these two terms can have unwanted consequences, however, both for the client and the proofreader. So let’s clarify the meaning of both terms to avoid misunderstandings.

Fortunately, it is very easy to distinguish between the two. Just ask yourself how many texts and how many languages are involved in the task:

Revising a translation involves 2 texts in 2 languages (source and target)
Proofreading a translation involves 1 text in 1 language (target)

It is important to make this distinction, because revision and proofreading are indeed two separate tasks for which two different skill sets – and often two different people – are needed:

Revision (2 texts – 2 languages)
Revising a translation requires a skilled translator with the appropriate language combination and subject specialisation who is able to compare a translation against the source text in order to check if the translation is accurate and adequate for the purpose and edit or correct it where necessary.

Proofreading (1 text – 1 language)
Proofreading a translation (or indeed any other text) requires a trained proofreader who works in the target language, who is not only experienced in spotting grammar and spelling errors, ambiguities and inconsistencies, but who is also trained in the techniques that enable her or him to do a professional job.

What if the client wants both?

Often the client expects the ‘proofreading’ job to include both: revision and proofreading. This is entirely reasonable. As a client, you want an excellent translation which is fit for purpose and free of errors and inconsistencies. But to avoid misunderstandings, it helps to clarify what exactly it is you require: revision, proofreading or both.

Equally, if you are the supplier of the service, it pays to double-check what your client actually wants from you, as you might not deliver the required service otherwise. And if the client wants both revision and proofreading, you either need a translator who is also a trained proofreader or you need to separate the two tasks and employ a translator for the revision and a proofreader for the proofreading.

Why is that necessary? For the same reason that not everyone who speaks two languages is a translator – not everyone who knows a thing or two about spelling and grammar is a proofreader. Trust me, I thought I was a pretty good proofreader before I did my formal training, but it opened my eyes. There is a lot more to the work of a proofreader than meets the eye.

Often translators are expected to do both the revision and the proofreading task, even if they are not trained proofreaders. As a trained proofreader, I think that’s a risky thing to do, both for the untrained proofreader and the client. So if you are a translator dealing with proofreading as part of your work, be it proofreading your own translation or someone else’s, it makes perfect sense to diversify and train as a proofreader in order to be able to offer both services – revision and proofreading – professionally.

If you are a translator interested in some formal proofreading training, or if you would like to refresh your proofreading skills, check out organisations such as the Publishing Training Centre London or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for their proofreading courses.

Detective work: Six proofreading secrets

You may be forgiven for thinking that proofreading is something anyone with a decent knowledge of grammar and spelling can do. After all, it is just about finding mistakes and adding or deleting the odd comma, isn’t it?

I have been proofreading since I was at university, a lifetime ago. I always had a good grasp of language and would find mistakes that other people had missed. It came naturally to me, and I was confident that I would spot all there was to spot. It wasn’t until I completed my formal training in proofreading that I realised how much more there is to it.

Of course there is the spelling and the grammar – and along came the realisation that I had to look up and double-check more words and rules than I thought I would. It also turned out that my first instinct wasn’t always right. Then there is the issue of consistency: what if a word can be spelled in different ways and they all appear in one text? Do I choose the one I like best? What about hyphenation and quotation marks, font types and sizes, layout and spaces? Do I have to check all of that too? Not to mention the important matter of putting your own personal style aside and not to confuse proofreading with editing (you can read more on that subject here). In short: the list was long, and my eyes were opened.

As a proofreader you take care of the whole text, correct factual errors where they occur, ensure consistency in line with the preferred style of the author and check if the text makes sense, taking the target readership into account. Often this requires more than one proof run and quite some detective work, as you have to check each and every aspect carefully not to miss anything. On top of that, you need to be able to follow a client’s brief, work with a style sheet or produce one yourself, give clear and concise instructions and justify your decisions.

To give you an insight into how a proofreader works and some tips how you can improve your own proofreading skills, I will let you in on six proofreading secrets:

1. Check layout and numbers first
Before you start correcting, have a look at the overall layout and structure of the text. Inconsistencies in font types and sizes, numbering or alignment are easier to spot when the text is still untouched. The same goes for missing or redundant spaces.

2. Run a spellchecker – but don’t rely on it
It doesn’t hurt to run a spellchecker if you are working on a digital document, but be aware that it will not find every error. Words that are spelled correctly will not be flagged, even if they are not intended, for example: ‘then’ instead of ‘when’, ‘for’ instead of ‘four’, ‘claws’ instead of ‘flaws’. I recently proofread a text where no errors were found by the spellchecker. After I had finished proofreading, I realised that I had to make more than 100 changes (deletions and insertions). This illustrates the limits of a spellchecker: it can be used in addition to but not as a replacement for proofreading.

3. Use a rule
Place a rule under the line that you are reading. It helps to focus on the words that are in front of you and keeps your eyes from skipping to other lines. This is simple but very effective.

4. Slow down
When we are reading for pleasure and at our normal speed, our brain tends to auto-correct mistakes as we read. This is why you need to slow down and read every single word when you are proofreading a text. In order to spot mistakes, you need to concentrate on what is actually there without being tempted to read what should be there. It also helps to read aloud and spell out what is written syllable by syllable. Some people even read a text backwards to focus on every single word.

5. Watch out for inconsistencies
When you come across words that can be spelled in two different ways and both spellings appear in the same document, you need to find out which one is used more often than the other and correct accordingly. The same approach applies to hyphenation – there are few set rules, and often it is a matter of making sure that the prevailing style is used consistently.

6. Read again for sense
After you have proofread a paragraph for errors, read it again to check if it makes sense. You may stumble upon conflicting messages or components of a sentence that don’t go together. If something is unclear or ambiguous, you may need to query it with the author (or indeed yourself, if that’s you).

This is just a glimpse into the world of a proofreader, but I hope it has given you a more detailed idea of what proofreading entails as well as some handy tips for your own use.

Proofreading does – and therefore requires – a lot more than meets the eye. Some of it may come naturally (a good grasp of grammar and spelling), but a lot of it takes formal training and practice (eye for the detail, in-depth knowledge and good judgement). What I enjoy most about proofreading is that you never stop learning: not only do you get to read about different subjects while you are at it, you also encounter new challenges waiting to be solved. It often feels like detective work, and if you fancy yourself to be a bit of a Sherlock, you are in for a thrill.

Find out more about the proofreading services at ablewords.

Proofreading or editing – that is the question

The line between proofreading and editing can seem a little blurred sometimes. However, there are a couple of clear indicators to straighten it out. If you are not sure whether your text needs proofreading or editing, here are some pointers to help you decide.

One way to make a distinction between the two services is to look at what stage of the process the task is performed. Proofreading is generally carried out once the text has been edited and the final version is complete. So it’s editing first, proofreading last.

Another way is to look at what the task actually includes. A proofreader looks for and corrects errors and inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, spelling and layout and does not otherwise interfere with the text. If there is a need for clarification, the proofreader merely raises a query so that the author or editor can take the final decision. Proofreading generally does not include changing the style or content of a text.

Editing a text (also called copy-editing) involves working on the text to enhance its quality. An editor specifies the overall style in view of the intended readership and alters the text (in collaboration with the author) when he or she thinks that a change is necessary, either for consistency, accuracy or to improve the flow. The editor also corrects spelling and grammatical errors, but – provided there is a separate proofreading process afterwards – the main focus is on the style and content of the text.

With these two indicators at hand – the stage of the process and the actual activity involved – it becomes easy to distinguish between editing and proofreading.

Proofreading and editing translations

Just like any other text, regardless of the language, a translation should be proofread at the end (unless it is for information only) to ensure that the translated text is error-free and consistent. Many translators proofread the text themselves once it is finished or ask a colleague to do so. Being familiar with the techniques of a proofreader is essential here, especially when checking your own text. You can read more on that subject here. For translations that are going to be printed or published it is advisable to employ a second (and preferably professional) proofreader in the target language to double-check the final version.

A translation may be reviewed by another translator with the same language combination, particularly on specialised subject matters. This can be regarded as editing, as it involves checking and, if required, changing the content of the translation itself to maintain accuracy or improve the overall quality of it. Again, this should be done before the final proofreading.

Treat a translation like any other text and you will know if and when it requires editing (reviewing) or proofreading.

It pays to know what you need

To illustrate all of the above in practice, I will conclude with an example that involves all three services: translating, editing and proofreading.

With the rise of machine translations, both translators and proofreaders (indeed sometimes confused in the process) often get asked to “proofread” a text which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a machine translation. The idea to run a free machine translation and ask someone to proofread it in order to use the text as a translation seems to become increasingly popular, but it usually backfires as it can lead to time-consuming and costly consequences.

As we have established earlier, in order to proofread you need a finished text. Depending on the subject and length of the text, this may not be the case with machine translations. More often than not the result of a machine translation is an incoherent and hardly comprehensible text that is difficult to read. What is required here is in fact either a substantial editing service to turn it into a readable and attractive text or a completely new and adequate translation of the original text – the latter often being the more efficient and less expensive alternative. Only then can we think about proofreading the text.

In the end, if you are unsure about the right service for your text, speak to a proofreader or copy-editor – or indeed a translator if you need it in a different language – and ask them for guidance. It is better to establish the true requirements to start with than to end up having to pay for extra services or to rectify a job that wasn’t necessary in the first place. It is quicker too.

Five myths about proofreading – busted!

Have you ever wondered if you should ask a proofreader for help and then run a spellchecker instead, thinking: same difference? Proofreading is often perceived as something old-fashioned that has been replaced by technology or as a necessary evil for people who write books on typewriters. Here are a few common misconceptions explained.

1. I don’t need proofreading, I use a spellchecker.
Using a spellchecker is recommendable and a good starting point. It finds a lot of misspelled words and even some grammatical errors. However, it does not spot words that are spelled correctly but not intended: ‘form’ instead of ‘from’, ‘grain’ instead of ‘brain’, ‘men’ instead of ‘man’, etc.

2. Anyone can proofread. I always let my colleague/friend proofread my texts.
It is good to let someone else proofread your text. Proofreading your own text is difficult, because our brain tends to auto-correct mistakes as we read our own words, because it knows what should be there. However, there are plenty of terms, spellings and rules in the English language that many people are unsure about: is it ‘accept’ or ‘except’, ‘its’ or ‘it’s’, ‘affect’ or ‘effect’? Professional proofreaders may not know every single term by heart, but they know when to check (and where) and are trained to see what is actually there.

3. Proofreading is not that important.
Not everything needs to be proofread. No one in their right mind will disregard a personal letter from a friend just because of a spelling mistake. However, if you have created a text with the intent to achieve something with it (e.g. to get people to buy your product or service or to read what you have to say), consider it as a job application: you want to make the best possible impression in order to get the desired attention. The trouble is that all your efforts could be destroyed if the text is riddled with mistakes or if one big blunder slipped in which spoils the impression and distracts from the content. Imagine a website that promotes public services but one crucial letter in the word ‘public’ is missing. I have seen it. It might not be taken quite so seriously.

4. Professional proofreading is expensive.
Have you ever asked for a quote to get a text proofread? Then perhaps you were surprised by how reasonable prices for proofreading generally are. Proofreading is usually charged per hour or per standard page, and fees are often more affordable than you think. Is it worth it for some peace of mind? You decide.

5. Proofreading takes too much time.
It is true: you cannot rush proofreading because it requires reading slowly in order to spot errors and inconsistencies. Having said that, an experienced proofreader can check around four standard pages (1000 words) an hour, depending on subject and condition of the text. If you have a text of around 500 words (such as this one) that you want proofread before sending it out, you will usually get it back swiftly.

So there we have it: spellchecker and proofreader – not quite the same thing, but very useful in conjunction to help make your text stand out for all the right reasons.

Check out the proofreading services at ablewords.