Here are some of the most common things missed while writing and then, infuriatingly, also while proofreading.
1. Fragments of sentences
Sometimes, especially with long sentences, writers can lose track and think that they have written a complete sentence when they haven’t. Each word group you have punctuated as a sentence needs to contain a grammatically complete and independent thought that can stand alone as an acceptable sentence.
For example: ‘Johnny, looking out of the window and watching the wind whip at the washing on the line, sending shirts swirling and slapping into each other, the sunlight flashing on the embedded glitter in Amelia’s skirt.'
That’s not a complete sentence. You might get away with it as a piece of poetic prose, standing alone in a group of complete sentences for aesthetic effect, but if you look carefully Johnny isn’t doing or being anything, so there’s no verb, which means no grammatically correct sentence.
You might want to try ‘Johnny, looking out of the window and watching the wind whip at the washing on the line, sending shirts swirling and slapping into each other, the sunlight flashing on the embedded glitter in Amelia’s skirt, wondered if it were going to rain.' Or something like that.
2. Misplaced and dangling modifiers
Modifiers like adjectives and adverbs need to be placed near the words they describe or you can get comical results.
For example: ‘The contingent of visitors arrived at Stoke Newington Cemetery, where many famous artisans are buried every day between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m.’ If rearranged, this sentence would make more sense: ‘Between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m., the contingent of visitors arrived at Stoke Newington Cemetery, where many famous artisans are buried.’
3. Parallelism gone wrong
Grammatically equal sentence elements are needed to express two or more matching ideas or items in a series.
For example: ‘As a Member of Parliament, I intend to win the next General Election, a national health programme, and the education system.’ You see that the verb ‘intend’ applies only to ‘win the next General Election’ and the rest of the sentence hangs there, ‘verbless’ if you see what I mean.
Try: ‘As a Member of Parliament, I intend to win the next General Election, develop a national health programme, and reform the education system.’
4. Mixed-up pronouns
This is quite common: confusing the reader by not being clear about to whom a pronoun refers.
For example: ‘Sarah told Josie immediately, of course, though she was pretty sure that she had heard it somewhere before then.’ Who had heard it before? Sarah or Josie? Or was Josie sure that Sarah had heard it before?
Try: ‘Sarah told Josie immediately, of course, though Josie was pretty sure that she had heard it somewhere before then.’ Though still not entirely pinning the ‘she’ to Josie, it’s a fairly safe bet that it was Josie who had heard it somewhere before then.
There’s a lot of confusion about commas. Some writers hate them and try to eradicate them from prose, so as to create an ongoing and flowing style; others insert them into every feasible gap to create a pausing pattern. I had one student who placed a comma between almost every word as he thought it helped the reader to ‘absorb’ each bit between.
Commas should be used to remove confusion and, where needed, to enhance the writer’s style and to punctuate important points.
For example: ‘She liked roasting vegetables and old people.’ This can clearly be modified to: ‘She liked roasting vegetables, and old people’. (Or, better still, 'She liked old people, and roasting vegetables.')
Take, as another example, the famous opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s novel Farewell to Arms:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
The poetic power of this paragraph derives in part from the presence of the commas in the second and fourth sentences; note that they are absent in the first and third, when you might feel they need to be present. Try repunctuating the piece with commas everywhere, just for fun:
In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road, and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty, and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road, and the dust rising, and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling, and the soldiers marching, and afterward the road bare and white, except for the leaves.
The changes are subtle. You might even argue that they are an improvement, risking blasphemy by questioning Hemingway. But the truth is that one of the common assumptions that we must make when assessing literature is that the author intended the piece to be exactly as it appears before us. So Hemingway wanted that ‘under-punctuated’ look. Apparently he re-wrote this beginning fifty times.
My point here is that all of these things - sentence fragments, modifiers, pronouns, commas and so on - are all tools for the writer to use and the proofreader is helping the writer to use them to their best advantage.
Both the sentence fragment in the first example above, and this use of commas suggest that the word ‘tools’ should be stressed over the word ‘rules’.
Proofreaders are clarifying and straightening out the writer’s use of the tools of language - ensuring firstly that he or she is making no errors with the tools and secondly that they are being used to enhance the writer’s overall writing.
There will be controversy about commas as long as people refer to rules about them and fail to see them, and everything else in the language, as a tool for expressing meaning in all its subtleties.
Probably the most common area of confusion and misuse I come across as a proofreader is to do with apostrophes. It’s as though a step has been missed during schooling - and in fact as a teacher I used to be able to pinpoint exactly where something had been missed.
Apostrophes are used to indicate possession for nouns (‘Susan’s scarf’ ‘several weeks’ work’) but not for personal pronouns (its, your, their, and whose).
Apostrophes also indicate omissions in contractions (‘it’s' = ‘it is’).
Plurals don’t normally need an apostrophe.
The easiest way to check if an apostrophe is needed is usually to ask ‘Is this a contraction?’
Try these examples:
After three [weeks/week’s/weeks’] worth of work, they completed the project. Correct answer is weeks’.
The [skies/sky’s] the limit. Correct answer is sky’s.
He had read all of [Dickens/Dickens’/Dickens’s/Dicken’s] novels. Correct answer is Dickens’ (or Dickens’s).
The most common apostrophe-related error? The use of ‘its’. ‘Its’ is a possessive pronoun - ‘The best test of a car is its driving range’, for example. Because it’s a possessive pronoun, we want to put in that apostrophe, just like on most other possessive pronouns - but ‘its’ is one of those pesky exceptions in English. The solution is just to ask ’Is this a contraction?’ The example above, ‘The best test of a car is its driving range’, doesn’t make sense if we take it as a contraction: ‘The best test of a car is it is driving range’ - so it must be the possessive.
These things can all be fiddly and annoying - but all punctuation, grammar, spelling and syntax rules are really tools, remember. Get them right, use them as you really want them used, and you are adding to the power and effectiveness of your work.