Spell-Checking, Grammar and Copy-editing Content for Maximum Correctness
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Spell-Checking, Grammar and Copy-editing Content for Maximum Correctness

Correct use of spelling and grammar are essential for good writing. Proofreading for errors and copy-editing our submitted works for accuracy makes perfect.

Spelling and Grammar: More than Their Own Reward

I write articles for several different publishing sites and I do try to get my spelling and grammar correct, especially for unusual words that we use in English. Honestly, I do try. I am not always successful and I wonder how the gentle reader views my authority on a topic when I do make a mistake by using an incorrect (albeit correctly-spelled) word or poor grammar.

It’s not just words though. Correctness is more than its own reward in publishing. It is a mandatory expectation. Nothing turns a reader against you (or your point of view) faster than an incorrectly-constructed sentence that includes poor grammar, misspelled or incorrect application of chosen words.

What comes to my mind most recently is an article that I read a few days ago on another publishing site, a site which shall remain nameless. On the secure (private) forum the author invited other members of the site to read her articles in exchange for her reading theirs in return.

Read me = read you” is and always shall be an invalid bargaining tool for readership and in the case of earnings per view, a potentially corrupt endeavor. It is highly prone to not succeed.

I read ten of her nearly sixty published articles just out of curiosity and professional courtesy. I left comments on seven of her articles as well. The last two articles had some spelling errors that I opted to politely and privately point out to her.

The article that sticks in my mind even now was a very intense and heartfelt poem which ended with an unintentional humorous climax due to its incorrect use of a common word. The poem ended as the author spoke tenderly of ...losing something presses to me” while clearly in the context of the prose she meant to use the adjective “precious” and not the verb presses. Suddenly her tender, intimate poem became trivial and inane. She lost credibility on the subject she was trying to convey.

A Spellchecker would not catch the word "presses" as an error as it is spelled correctly. A grammar syntax checker however might flag this word as possibly being an error. A human copy-editor proofreading this would definitely suggest that it is the wrong word.

I will never know how many times my best, first suggestion to a writer is to use a trusted spellchecker. And if necessary, a thesaurus when in doubt of the meaning of an otherwise correctly-spelled word.

Copy editing (copy-editing or copyediting, all three are correct forms) enhances the validity of the work by improving the formatting style and accuracy of the document. It is however not the job of the copy-editor to alter the content of the manuscript. Only the accuracy of its formatting. Altering the facts of the content is the sole domain of the author.A good copy editor might however point out a factual error to the author and leave the correction up to them. -It's all about making the author look their very best and most-informed as possible.

Here in this article I am assuming that the author and the copy-editor are not the same person but we can all learn from what the copy editor does. Most of us that write freelance are both author and copy-editor for our works. I assume that large news sites with professional authors have copy editors to check for factual errors as well as spelling and grammar, so mistakes are fewer and harder to find in the published result. But it happens.

Even the Big Sites Make Mistakes with Spelling or Grammar

On May 12th, 2009 the ca.Yahoo.com portal ran an article on a mishap involving a passenger plane. While on the tarmac the plane inadvertently sucked some cargo into one of its engines. The story reads “Plan evacuated as container is sucked into engine.”

I captured a screenshot of the error and the corrected storyline which appeared minutes later. Notice the difference in the text portion of the two images below. The second image correctly reads “Plane evacuated as container is sucked into engine."

correctly-spelled but wrong word used in the caption for this story images

Above: the Before (incorrect) text.

and the follow-up image, screen-captured just minutes later:

Below: the After (corrected) text.

the corrected text for the new article

(two image screenshots by author)

'Balloon Boy' and Helium Balloon over Colorado Causes Nationwide Panic

More recently, October 15th, 2009 comes the story that unfolded involving a homemade helium balloon that escaped from the backyard of a family in Fort Collins, Colorado. The story riveted millions to their television sets as it was initially feared that a 6-year old boy may have crawled inside a compartment beneath the 'flying saucer-shaped' balloon before it slipped its mooring and got away.

For over two hours the balloon sailed across central Colorado with news helicopters giving chase, broadcasting the story live to a worried and concerned nation held captive to their television sets. The path of the balloon disrupted air traffic and involved multiple ground rescue agencies across several counties that gave pursuit along the balloon's path.

The balloon finally came to rest on its own accord and was discovered to be unoccupied. This was quickly being suspected to be a staged hoax. The little lost boy was found later at home allegedly hiding in his parent's attic over the garage. It is now confirmed that the drama that played out was in fact a staged hoax, a publicity stunt.

Local, state and federal aviation authorities were involved in the search and rescue activities and if this turns out to be a hoax, it was an expensive one. It is possible that if this was an staged hoax that Class 3 misdemeanor charges may be laid against one or more of the family members involved, charges that may include conspiracy, filing a false report and child endangerment. Federal charges may be added as well.

Sources report that these charges could carry a 6-year prison sentence and a $500,000.00 fine. It is not a game to play such a hoax on a nation. The news portal MSN.com ran follow-ups on their home page as the event was unfolding. Here is a small screenshot of an artist's rendering of the homemade helium balloon with the size of an adult male for comparison and the content of the paragraph in which it appeared.

correctly-spelled but wrong word uses in Balloon Boy story image

(image screenshot by author)

Note that the byline reads “...and said he once flew a place around Hurricane Wilma’s perimeter in 2005.” Again, I am pretty sure that the word “place” should be “plane” which of course, makes the sentence have meaning.

Maybe I’m just being a hard-head and I probably come across sounding rather anal-retentive but seeing errors like this can lead me to think that the writer is either hurried, doesn’t know the difference or worse, -doesn’t care. In the case of the helium balloon story I am quite sure that the writer was hurried to get the story out.

Events unfolded very rapidly with this story and as of this writing were still being revealed. More complicated is the fact that the error occurs in a graphic image; an image that would take slightly longer to pull-down, correct using an image-editing software and re-upload to their newserver. It requires a human copy-editor to evaluate the correctness of text-in-graphics because a spell-checker cannot parse, or 'see,' the text in images...

I should be more generous with praise and more frugal with my analytic. I am sure that I make countless errors myself in spelling and grammar and I would hope that someone points my errs out to me and in a respectful manner. I welcome the opportunity to correct my spelling or grammar errors.

Curse of the Copy Editor: Incompatible Text Editors (MS_WORD, etc.)

A lot more can be said regarding proprietary formatting and text editors like Microsoft's MS_WORD. It adds formatting elements that are for the most part incompatible with other text editors, online content publishers and so forth.

Often the culprits are simple character entities like apostrophe, hyphen, double quotes and the like. The copyright symbol is another commonly malformed entity. For HTML web pages, the character entity would be typed as © which the web will render as the letter "C" with a circle around it. Some word-processor programs have a special character for copyright but it shows up on web pages as a geometric square, a question mark or some other malformed substitute.

These malformed character entities usually appear as nonsensical text and numbers upon the user agent (a computer monitor, hand-held device, etc.) For instance, instead of an apostrophe "s" we sometimes see strings like "ae“." Below are some examples taken from the web of what I am talking about. Notice in the first image the word "McDonald's" and the word "can't" in the second image.

McDonald's text with character entity FAIL

(screenshot by author)

And below, the imported text created on another text editor creates incompatible characters for an article by author about the Zanzibar Gem 'Can't Kill Me' Plant. The word is supposed to be "can't."

Character entities from a proprietary text editor show up as nonsensical alphabetic, numerical and superscript characters

(and corrected text below)

(images by author)

In these cases it is probably best to do a final copy edit of the article in the text editor of the publishing site to ensure local compatibility. As a web page builder I encounter this character entity and content formatting anomaly often. Correcting these occurrences constitutes a fairly large portion of my work.

Removing proprietary formatting and punctuation entities that do not transmit correctly for the web makes the content more readable which in turn lends greater authority to the author. That is the duty of the copy editor: to help make what the author wrote look its very best.

As a rule I try avoid the use of contractions like "can't" in favor of the more widely readable "cannot." It can solve a wider cabal of formatting problems for the lone writer whom also copy edits their own work.

Once in Awhile They Get the Grammar Right

A science fiction/multimedia convention here in Toronto has a new logo which is supposed to show the epitome of its name, "Polaris."

Polaris is also called “The North Star” or “The Pole Star.” It is located in the tip of the handle of Ursa Minor, the “Little Dipper” and for Earth-bound navigators, is very near the apparent magnetic north pole. Sailors, hunters and navigators for centuries have used Polaris/the North Star to determine which way is true north.

      and      map of Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper

(image screenshot by author)   and   (image source)

This poster for a science fiction/multi-media convention gets a number of things right not the least of which is Ursa Minor and the Pole Star are in the correct position. At first glance the Little Dipper looked malformed. I thought it looked skewed somehow. It has been awhile since I studied star constellations. But it is depicted correctly; the constellation we call “Little Dipper” actually appears this way and it does look more like a small meat cleaver than a water dipper.

The larger constellation Ursa Major (Big Dipper) on the other hand looks a lot more like a water dipper. Some cultures and nations see other things in these two constellations ranging from a bear, a plow, a horse cart, other items and of course the previously mentioned meat cleaver.

The repeated use the Ursa Minor constellation on the branding text is mildly confusing at first take. I was expecting to see the Big Dipper here but is a mirror image of the Little Dipper that uses the star Polaris to place the tittle (the diacritic ‘dot’) over the lowercase letter “i” in “Polaris.”

The Oxford Comma

Notice the use of commas in the short sentence "Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Beyond." One might question the use of a comma after "Fantasy" but as used here, these are three separate items.

"Science Fiction" is one, "Fantasy" is another and "Beyond" is the third entity whereby in the absence of the 'Oxford Comma' the phrase would imply 'Fantasy and Beyond' as one listing. Used here, "Fantasy" is not Beyond and "Beyond" is not necessarily "Fantasy." We are presented with three distinct and separate items. This is correct useage.

An easier to understand example of the difference would be these two lists of items in a hypothetical picnic basket:

"Ham and Cheese, peanut butter and jam sandwiches" versus the second example "Ham and Cheese, peanut butter, and jam sandwiches."

The first list has TWO types or choices of sandwiches (Ham & Cheese, and PBJ) while the addition of the Oxford Comma creates THREE sandwich choices (Ham & Cheese, Peanut Butter(with no jam), AND Jam Sandwiches. The correct use of the Oxford Comma can drastically change the facts, quantity and meaning of a sentence.

Used correctly, it delineates a discernible difference in items. Confused? It is understandable. You're not entirely alone.

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Comments (19)

This was definitely worth the read. Excellent article. Great job!

Excellent job stickman!

Great job Stickman. Computer SpellCheckers and Grammar Syntax Checkers are great tools but in the end, nothing can beat a real, human expert proof readers. Fortunately I have a live-in expert, my wife, the retired schoolteacher. Of course there's a problem with human proof readers too, unless they understand the technical jargon that the writer is using they may think a word is wrong when it's perfectly correct. Once again. Great article. Ever writer should read it.

Did I spot a couple of errors there Jerry? Lol

I have re-edited this three or four times now ...enough! :-) . . And I have incentive; my wife is a Technical Writer/Content editor so to really impress her I need to try *just a little bit harder*

Hear hear!

Great advice. I spend more time editing than writing!

Fantastic write. Full of information and great points. Stickman you really do know what your talking about. I look forward to reading maybe some pieces in the future from you on different ideas to inprove for people like me with difficult spelling and grammar problems. Maybe even some software or site self help type of things. Thank You

As English is a second language for me I saw the need to sent the manuscript of my book to a professional editor. The amount of misspellings and mixed up word orders she found was amazing.

A nods to you Agriculi for wanting your work to be the best. Allowing a technical writer to work your content only makes you look better and more informed.

While slamming my head into my desk in exasperation over spelling and grammar issues, I often come back to this article. Thanks so much for this well-written piece!

Great write, editing is very important it would break a good article.

Great article and advice - my sticking point is the difference between US and South African English spelling - and the US version is creeping into ours, mainly because of the Internet and TV. Another one is the juxtaposition of letters, as in the word Angel, and by mistake one types in Angle - the spell checker does not pick it up, so my wife, unless I am working late at night is an EXCELLENT profreader .......ooops! Proofreader :-)

Colin, -I am always getting "angel" and "angle" interposed too. -Really difficult to catch times and as many articles as I have been doing about building bird houses and other wood crafts, "angle" is a pretty important word to get right. -In either venue! :-)

Great English lesson. I make errors all the time inadvertently and seem to rush my submissions for publication. Great points and tips to improve ones writing and expression. Even professional writers and editors make grammar mistakes. Excellent post.

I felt like you were talking to me LOL. Thanks for the article.

I enjoyed reading your article and I am a grammar nazi and spell check fiend on all of my articles. Usually when I am up late writing I make the most mistakes and hate myself for them later, especially when submitting to a place like Factoidz where you can't edit after submission.

Nice article. Good job.

How fantastic is this article! Thinking about you taking a screen shot of Yahoo Canada's page made me laugh. Especially as I am Canadian myself and also cringe when I see spelling and grammatical mistakes. Keep up the great work :)