We’ve covered the most common errors in non-fluent English writing before, but this guide looks closer at the errors that most commonly get missed or ignored by proofreaders. To level up your proofreading skills and to ensure that you never miss these pitfalls again, make sure to bookmark this handy resource!
Note: While we hope this guide is helpful for all proofreaders, some tips are specifically geared toward Proofed editors.
Language setting: Make sure you set this first, so that MS Word will highlight at least some of the spelling issues. Select all the text in the document before setting the language.
Customer requests (out of scope): If, in their notes, a customer asks for a service that Proofed doesn’t offer, leave a note when you upload explaining this is not part of our service.
Consistency: If a customer consistently uses a form of spelling that is not the norm for the language setting they’ve chosen, you can make a choice to either follow their lead or change it, but leave a comment in both cases. The same applies if they are consistently doing something unusual in their referencing style. If you don’t leave a comment explaining what you are doing, you are leaving yourself open to a possible complaint.
Double spaces: Do a quick Find > Replace check to remove all double spaces and spaces after or before opening/closing brackets, or before commas and full stops. You should repeat this check after you’ve finished proofreading.
Comment ID: Make sure this is set to Proofed, unless advised otherwise. If you are using aSuite, this should happen automatically.
Errors: Always, always, always check your comments for errors; these are confusing to the customer and will undermine their confidence in the work you’ve done. For more on commenting effectively, see our resource Offering Editorial Feedback to Clients.
aSuite: Use and/or adapt comments from the aSuite libraries whenever you can.
Be nice: Make sure your freeform comments are both kind and clear, remembering that the customer might not have a complete grasp of English and might be under a lot of pressure.
Commonly Misused Words and Phrases
“What’s more” and “besides”: These are often used at the start of a sentence when the writer actually means “furthermore” or “in addition.” Please check for and change these as appropriate.
Dialect differences: Watch for words like programme/program, practice/practise that are different in US and UK/Australian English. See A Proofreader’s Guide to British, American and Australian English and our Dialect Masterclass.
Homophones (like compliment/complement, principal/principle): Words that sound the same but have entirely different meanings!
“On the other hand” and “on the contrary”: These are often used when nothing is being compared and the writer means something like “however.” If they are making a comparison, “in contrast” is most likely what they mean.
“However”: Writers often use “however” when they mean “in addition” (i.e., they are not comparing anything, just listing another point.
Articles: Non-fluent writers often struggle with articles by either using them inappropriately or missing them out altogether. You should correct their use; you don’t need to leave a comment unless something about their use is unclear.
Tenses: It’s our job to correct tenses, so:
- If the writer is describing something that has already happened (e.g., a survey or experiment they conducted as part of their studies), it’s past tense.
- If they are discussing current knowledge (e.g. something they have established, or findings in recent research), it’s present tense.
- If they are proposing something for the future, use (you guessed it) future tense.
Noun/verb agreement: In some of the complex long sentences you might encounter, it’s easy to miss this essential part of proofreading. Always make sure you identify the subject and verb of each sentence and that they match up, as in “evidence … indicates” or “researchers … claim.”
“Which” vs “that”: Although these are often used interchangeably in UK English, we prefer “that” for restrictive clauses and “which,” preceded by a comma, for non-restrictive ones. For example, “I’ve invested in a computer that has a huge screen, which is better for my eyes.”
Compound adjectives: Use hyphens to join two words used to describe another, as in “deep-seated beliefs.” However, do not do so when the first of the words ends in “ly,” as in “independently minded person.”
Dashes: Use en dashes to separate number/date ranges or to indicate a relationship: “Out of the 30–40 people in the room, only a few said they had their work–life balance about right.”
Dashes: When used to separate sections of text, spaced en dashes are more frequently used in UK English, while unspaced em dashes are used in US English and (usually) Australian English.
Commas: Don’t use commas before “and” or “but” (or the rest of the FANBOYS) if the subject in the two clauses does not change, as in “I thought I’d never get anything done today but I went online and booked a holiday.”
Semicolons: Use a semicolon for a longer pause, usually when you are making a separate point, as in “It was really sunny today; I went to the riverside festival and listened to some music.” The text on each side of the semicolon needs to be able to stand alone as a sentence.
Colons: Usually used to precede some form of list, as in “I refuse to get involved for three reasons: it is not going to help; it will be really difficult to do; it is a rubbish idea.”
Punctuation: Periods and commas go inside inverted commas in US English and in fiction in all dialects, outside in non-fiction UK and Australian English. Superscript footnote numbers usually go after any punctuation except the dash.
Syntax: Non-fluent writers often get things almost right, but not quite; we need to fix or comment on these almost-right things, so “he also is crazy” would be “he is also crazy,” or “social media has been influencing” would be “social media has influenced,” and “the market it is volatile” would be “the market is volatile.” Remember, if it’s not something you’d write, it’s not something you can leave alone (reading aloud can help with this).
General Style Tips
Et al.: This is always followed by a period and (the vast majority of times) does not need to be italicized. Remember that et al. = more than one author, so any verbs need to agree with the plural. For more detail on this, see the microlearning What to Do with et al.
Referencing: Put reference lists in alphabetical order using the button in the Word toolbar with “A–Z” and an arrow beside it. It’s good to do this before and after proofreading any references, as they can get out of order in the process.
Referencing: aSuite has up-to-date comments setting out the formats of most referencing styles and types; just type in “Harvard,” for example, and scroll down to see the options.
Quote marks: Single for UK and Australian English, double for US.
Contractions: You should nearly always fix these in formal writing, so “can’t” becomes “cannot,” “they’re” becomes “they are,” etc. Use them appropriately in creative writing, poetry, scripts, marketing content, blogs, etc.
Capitalization: Only capitalize proper nouns, so (unless a style guide says otherwise) “captain” and “prime minister” are only capitalized when part of someone’s name, as in “Captain Pugwash” and “Prime Minister Johnson.” For more on this, see our Dealing with Awkward Capitalization microlearning.
Companies, bodies, and organizations: These are treated as singular in US English and singular or plural (depending on context) in UK and Australian English. Aim to ensure consistency, but note that you can have a mixture of first-person plural (“We are hoping to …”) and singular (“The company is intending…”).
Acronyms: In formal writing, write out terms in full first and put the acronym in brackets afterwards. In informal and creative writing, consider whether the reader will be aware of the meaning of the acronym and use your judgment accordingly. For more on this, see our Acronym Masterclass.
Ampersands: Replace & with “and” unless stipulated by a style guide or used in APA parenthetical citations, brand names, or journal names in certain referencing styles. For more on this, see our microlearning on ampersands.
Grammatical person: It’s becoming more acceptable to use the first person in academic writing. Aim for consistency in and appropriate use of the grammatical person.
How Far to Go
If you’re not sure how far you can go when it comes to making changes in academic writing, please see our guide How Far to Go in Academic Proofreading.