Sunday, 15 December 2013


Some thoughts on the use of language in our work, and the vital role of the proofreader, from the author of THE WALLED GARDEN:

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Does it matter how we spell words or whether we use the correct grammar and punctuation? Is proofreading really necessary? Does any of it make a difference to the reader’s enjoyment of the text? As someone who is a proofreader as well as a writer and, of course, a reader, I feel quite strongly about the subject and consider that it does not always receive the attention it deserves.

At its most basic, proofreading is checking that the spelling, punctuation and layout of a text are correct according to current usage and the publisher’s own ‘house style’. I emphasise current usage, because spelling, grammar and layout have changed over the years. There are many words where we no longer need to put in an apostrophe to show that they have been shortened. Who now would write ’phone (for telephone) or ’bus (for omnibus)? Where British English used to use a ‘z’ in a word, it now often puts an ‘s’, so it has ‘realise’ rather than ‘realize’. Both are correct and it may come down to the publisher’s house style as to which letter is used in certain words. The proofreader will need to know in advance which style is being used.

There is also a difference between British English and American English when it comes to spelling, word usage and punctuation. Again, it is up to the publisher to decide on whether one or the other is used, and that may depend on whether the writer usually writes in American English, or whether the story is set in the USA or Canada and reads more naturally if the text is in American English. When it comes to spelling, American English tends to prefer ‘z’ in spelling rather than ‘s’, so once again we are back to ‘realize’. Word usage is different, so ‘sidewalk’ rather than ‘pavement’. Moreover, words change their meaning from one version of English to another. In American English, ‘homely’ is usually used in the sense of ‘unattractive’. British English does not have this meaning for the word. Again, the proofreader has to be aware of which version of English is being used in a text, and can then check it accordingly. (Australian English is different again!)

Punctuation is equally important. It allows the writer to indicate what they mean in the text, and it enables to reader to follow what is happening, who is speaking and, hopefully, understand what the writer meant. That may make no difference to someone who is not bothered about punctuation but I imagine most people who read a lot have a reasonably good grasp of it. Again, it can vary according to current usage, house style and whether British or other variations of English are followed. It may even be down to the idiosyncratic views of the writer. Someone may choose to write twenty pages of text without a single full stop. Their writing may be brilliant and regarded as innovative. I suspect they are the exception. Most authors will probably be seen as not having bothered with proofreading and they, their editor and publisher may be regarded as putting out works that are poor in quality because no-one can follow what the writer is trying to say. One writer I have come across insisted on putting the full stop outside the quotation marks at the end of direct speech, because they liked the look of it that way. It may have seemed all right to them but not to anyone else.

As a writer, I want to make it clear to a reader what I mean in the text, and who is saying what. As a reader, I want to enjoy the story without constantly trying to work out who is speaking, or whether the author meant this - or that. The reader can glean this from the way punctuation is used, so it is important to get that right. What they do not want is to be ‘thrown out’ of the story through being confused by the text.

Admittedly, there are variations in style. For example, it is not always necessary to use quotation marks to indicate direct speech. It can be done in other ways. That may be up to the way the publisher prefers a text, bearing in mind that the most readers are more familiar with quotation marks rather than any variations. It is also necessary to be aware of punctuation and how it has been used in a text. A comma in the wrong place (or missing) can make a huge difference to the meaning of a sentence. “Stick it in, Thomas” is completely different from “stick it in Thomas”. In the first version, Thomas is being asked to stick something in. The second version tells the reader that Thomas is about to have something stuck in him. It is the comma that makes all the difference. When checking the text, if the meaning is unclear the proofreader should query it, so that the author or editor has another look at it.

Styles in layout have changed and vary even now. It used to be the norm that direct speech always had to start as a new paragraph. That is no longer adhered to. You will find direct speech suddenly beginning in the middle of a long paragraph of exposition. I find that disconcerting, but it is not necessarily incorrect. I have also come across direct speech of a second character following on from that of the first, all in the same paragraph. That is not a good idea, because the text starts to become jumbled for the reader. It is much clearer if the writer begins a new paragraph when another character starts speaking. In terms of layout of text, that again will depend on the publisher, and the proofreader will need to take their cue from accepted house style.

Is it the job of a proofreader to point out other mistakes the writer has made? No, but it may save red faces all round if the error is mentioned. Then it is up to the editor and/or writer to decide what to do about it. If a story is set in 2013 in Yugoslavia, then the country name is wrong for that date, and the author or editor will have to correct it or accept that readers will undoubtedly point out the error. Or if a character has been called Kenneth throughout the novel and then is suddenly referred to as Michael (and I have come across this in published books), flag it up.

Writers do not always use the correct word and a proofreader should be on the lookout for that. I was a bit startled to read in a book by a very successful writer that the protagonist did not care whether a government official conducted his public duties in a solid building or in a marquis. While this conjured up all sorts of mind-boggling images, what was on the page was not what the author had meant, because the text made it clear that the permanence of a stone building was being compared with the temporary nature of a large tent. At this point, I was ‘thrown out’ of the story and had a good chortle. Whether the wrong word was the author’s, or whether it had been changed along the way by a second or third party, who knows. Certainly no-one picked up the error before the book was published.

Other bugbears of mine are the use of ‘precipitous’ when the writer means ‘precipitate’, and writers putting ‘may’ when they mean ‘might’ (and vice versa). Confusing ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ is another common occurrence. This is complicated by the fact that colloquially the words are often interchanged, but in both British English and American English the correct usage is the same, and putting ‘he lays on the bed’ begs the question ‘What exactly does he lay on the bed? An egg?’

As a writer, of course you should check your own work. That means proofreading the text, not just spell-checking it. No computer can indicate that you have put ‘forth’ when you meant ‘fourth’. A proofreader should then check the text and its layout and that should go back to an author to be corrected. However, do not accept all corrections as gospel and be aware that a proofreader may not have spotted a mistake. I discovered I had a character peeing into some bushes where another character was hiding. Nothing wrong with that except that it was not what I had intended to write. The character should have been peering into the bushes to discover the person hidden there. Maybe peeing was a more interesting alternative…

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