It is a truth universally acknowledged that any article on the subject of proofreading is bound to contain its own share of errors. However, we face this potential irony head on, as itâs a practice worth pushing. And while taking pride in your work is a wonderful thing, it goes further even than that: itâs a matter of credibility.
Take heed of poor Jim Knight, the Minister of State for Schools and Learners no less, whose political blog was revealed in February to be full of typos and other mistakes. After forgetting such schoolroom staple rules as âi before e except after câ, Mr Knight has announced he ââmust do betterâ and always check [his] work.â
Shouldnât we all? The trouble is that a speedy skim just before you press âsendâ isnât going to cut it. This â according to the most popular theory among cognitive psychologists at the moment â is because of something called âparallel letter recognitionâ. This is the idea that, when reading, we process the individual letters of a word simultaneously in order to recognise the word.
This certainly begins to make sense of the odd phenomenon whereby, if the first and last letters of a word are in the right place, the middle can be a complete shambles and chances are youâll still be able to understand it.
Ltlite wnoedr taht tpyos are otefn msiesd, wulndoât you arege?
In normal reading we donât actually scan every word: our eyes move in little jumps (or âsaccadesâ), fixating on key words. But short or commonly occurring words are often skipped. While the eyes focus â for milliseconds â at one point on the page, our peripheral vision gathers information about upcoming words. We interpret based on what we see, but also â crucially â on what we expect to see. Familiarity with the context leaves us much more likely to make assumptions about what is written, and the chances of us being familiar with the context of our own documents are pretty high (one would hope).
And, of course, spell-checkers are very unreliable aids indeed for a language rather fond of its heterographic homophones (words which sound the same but are spelled differently). For example, ewe/you, to/too/two and there/their/theyâre; not to mention such similar formations as tough/trough/though/thought. One contributor to the Big Breakfastâs forum once fell victim to this very problem. Vehemently defending a young female presenter from accusations of vacuousness, he vowed to always stick up for her: âthough thick and thinâ.
Freudian slips notwithstanding, we all want to write what we mean and mean what we write. And, of course, to be able to stand by our work with pride.
For even more science on the subject, click here.
And if you have questions about proofreading â or any other writing issues â visit our forum and ask the experts.