Our proofreading and editing team is often asked about their work in client meetings, at parties, during family dinners and in the odd chance discussion in airports. Here are their answers collected in one convenient Q&A by our talented Olivia McDowell. Discover how proofreaders work, gain permission to split your infinitives and more.

What’s a proofreader?
We fix grammar and spelling errors. But we also make sure sentences end with a full stop (or otherwise); words are hyphenated (or not) consistently; company names are spelled correctly; figures and graphs are numbered consecutively; cross-references are accurate; appropriate text and heading styles have been applied; and that the ‘final final’ copy actually makes sense.

Isn’t that the same as editing?
Editing is an earlier step, and generally involves a heavier hand – think of it as ripping up the carpet and sanding the floorboards, whereas proofreading is applying the final coat of polish. An editor will, if necessary, reorder paragraphs, introduce headings and subheadings, and even rewrite whole sentences if the original text isn’t clear or appealing. By the time a proofreader gets their hands on the copy, all that should be taken care of. (Although if it isn’t – if the edit never happened or it left a lot to be desired – a good proofreader will take care of this too.)

Can’t my spellcheck do that?
Spellcheck is great; we use it too. There are even machine-learning tools that go further, remembering in-house style preferences, flagging overly complex sentences and picking up words that may be spelled correctly but are out of place (see our page on Acrolinx). But spellcheck won’t notice if your heading styles change halfway through. Nor is it likely to notice if you’ve typed ‘coma’ instead of ‘comma’ or, god forbid, ‘pubic’ instead of ‘public’. Those words are spelled correctly and are the same parts of speech, so spellcheck won’t bat an eyelid. These are very specific examples, but in short: we don’t just read the words very closely; we do so with the audience, document type, aesthetics, purpose, scope for change, deadline and any other specific instructions in mind. We can also review spellcheck results with a critical human eye.

Oh, you’re a proofreader/an editor? Books or magazines?
While we have edited the odd nonfiction book and regularly work on trade-specific, B2B and intra-company magazines, publishing houses usually have full-time editorial teams that work solely on their manuscripts and related material. Our client list and document profile is much more varied – on any given day, we might have people working on a government report, a set of white papers for a tech company, a brochure for a financial institution, a consumer website refresh and a sustainability report for an energy company.

Friends always say I’m a bit of a ‘Grammar Nazi’ – can’t I just do it myself?
I consider myself a fan of aviation – would you let me fly your plane? We’re not saying we know everything there is to know, but a certain adage comes to mind: ‘I’m a lover, not an expert’. In this case, you may love grammar, but we have years of study, training, accreditation and on-the-job experience – plus a few tertiary qualifications – under our belts, so we’re completely dedicated to the technical word stuff.

What’s an en [or em] dash? Can’t I just use a hyphen?
Usually, a hyphen connects a prefix to the rest of a word (pre-paid, co-operation, non-profit), and in this sense it is falling out of fashion. Consider for example that ‘to-night’ and ‘good-morning’ were once hyphenated, as were ‘multi-national’ and ‘e-mail’ (all of these are now written as one word, although the latter two may depend on house style). A hyphen can also connect two parts of a compound adjective – like ‘long-running TV show’ or ‘face-to-face conversation’ – although there are some tricky rules, which we’ve covered in a previous post.

An em dash is as wide as the letter ‘m’ and is also falling out of fashion, although not in American English, where its sole purpose is to separate clauses—like this one—from the main body of a sentence. In most Australian English style guides, that job is delegated to a spaced en dash – like this one.

This brings us to the en dash, which is as wide as the letter ‘n’. It does a few things: indicates spans (8–10 years old, FY2016–17), shows connections (Sydney–Singapore flight), corrals compound adjectives (anti–money laundering regulations) and separates clauses – as we’ve seen above. It’s a workhorse, but it does have defined roles.

In short, not all dashes are the same. If you’re unsure which to use, we’re here to help.

We’re a bit tight on time/budget. Can you just do a quick read-through instead of a full edit/proofread?
This is like asking someone to screen a ‘quick’ Lord of the Rings marathon. A key part of proofreading is the simple act of reading, and even if we could somehow hit the 2x speed button, skim reading isn’t proofreading. Ultimately, there is only so fast a person can read 20,000 words (for example) let alone read them carefully, cross-checking and making changes along the way. We’ll always work as efficiently as possible, but speed reading is about as far from proofreading as it gets – and won’t deliver the result you need.

The document already has senior approval. Can you please only mark up ‘essential errors’?
The proofreading – and certainly the editing – should always happen before gaining senior approval. It’s usually too late to change things that are locked down or in final layout, which can be a big problem if your late-to-the-game proofreader spots a whole section of new (often unedited) additions, or a style variation that affects half the pages in a document.

Also, as far as we’re concerned an error is an error. We have an obligation to suggest it be fixed, and we’re very reluctant to relax our personal and professional standards. That said, we will always respect any request to leave passive phrasing, overly long sentences and other ‘editorial’ fixes if it’s too late or just not possible to change them. But this request always makes us a little sad, so please only use it in dire circumstances.

We’ve got a US document that needs to be in Australian English. Could I just go through and remove the serial commas, change –or/–ize endings to –our/–ise, that sort of thing?
You could… but deeper changes might be needed. Consider the difference between ‘Oh you’re traveling for a couple weeks in September? Have a super nice vacation and good luck shopping the fall sales! You’ll have to write me about your favorite finds’ and ‘Oh, you’re travelling for a couple of weeks in September? Have a really nice holiday and good luck shopping in the spring sales. You’ll have to write to me about your favourite finds’. Some of these differences are matters of pure spelling, but many aren’t. Localisation is often a complex combination of spelling, grammar, syntax, vocabulary and geographical/seasonal awareness.

Can I end a sentence with a preposition?
Would it sound silly not to? Unless ‘To where are you going?’ sounds perfectly normal to you, then ‘Where are you going to?’ is perfectly acceptable.

Can I split an infinitive?
Of course you can. The default example comes straight from Star Trek: If ‘To boldly go’ was such a crime against the English language, Sir Patrick Stewart would never have uttered the words. As with prepositions, whatever sounds most natural, modern and human will usually be correct.

Can I start a sentence with ‘and’?
I stand by my go-to response: Jane Austen did it, so you can too.

How do you stay focused on the details for so long?
Coffee. Snacks. Endless cups of tea. Loud music. Air conditioning. Sometimes all at once. We all have our tricks! But honestly, focus is just one of the skills that natural-born proofreaders possess – it’s like asking a marathon runner how they cope with running for so long, or a finance analyst how they handle all those numbers. There’s plenty of training and experience involved, but to some extent it’s part of our disposition. (And if that sounds high-and-mighty, rest assured that to balance it out most of us are completely useless with all those numbers.)

Olivia McDowell is a Senior Editor and Proofreader at Editor Group, where she’s fielded these and other questions for the best part of a decade. If you’ve got a query of your own about how proofreading works, you can send it to her at omcdowell@editorgroup.com. And remember: the only silly question is the one you don’t ask.

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