Common Mistakes in Written English

Picture of a german military sign
What mistakes do you notice?

People are the same everywhere. Whether you receive work from the west or the east, from America or China, from Dublin, Dundee or Humberside, the same mistakes are made. Of course, if no mistakes were made then there wouldn’t be the need for proofreaders. Here are some of the common errors made by authors. Let’s start at the beginning.

Contents page – think of the reader who has to wade through it. Is there really a need for chapter headings (1), subheadings (1.1) and sub-subheadings (1.1.1) all with lengthy descriptions? If your contents page is itself longer than a page it’s too long. Call me a minimalist, but a chapter-heading page is plenty. Also, I’m one of the proofreaders who will need to redo every page number when the piece is finished.

Introduction – or the enigmatically titled ‘abstract’ opening paragraph. More often than not the notion of abstract is horribly apt since it’s rare to be able to figure out what’s coming next. And isn’t that the point of the Introduction? To set out what’s coming up? Perhaps lecturers and question-setters should abandon the word abstract, since it seems to encourage people to be more, well, abstract when they should be descriptive.

American – far be it from me to offend our American friends but unless you’re at an American university, don’t forget to include U’s in words, get rid of those double spaces, and stop saying organization. Unless it’s the World Health Organization. Then it’s ok because their website says Z. I mean, I know a Z rather than an S can be technically used in the UK, but it just looks wrong. If I can’t imagine seeing it in a UK newspaper, I tend to get rid, unless I’m told to keep it in. I love America, I just got back from my 15th visit there, but let’s hold out against the corruption of our language. I don’t want to correct any more colors or favors (as shown in my previous article: what is proofreading). Actually, I’d rather spend time thanking you for taking Simon Cowell off our hands.

Tenses – please, make your mind up. You undertook the research, you read the journals, you carried out the experiments, and you sent out the questionnaires. It’s all happened. Past tense. I once proofread a book that was supposed to be a diary format Bridget Jones type thing: it was in the present tense. It’s a diary!

Bad signs – when the filename is misspelt. I’m fairly sure a mess lies within when the filename is ‘foor proufreding’, ‘reflaction draft’ or ‘disserstation proofreading’.

References – this is really another case of make your mind up. APA, Harvard, none? Half your journal titles are in italics, the other half aren’t. A third of your author names are written out (John Smith), a third are initial/backwards (Smith, J.) and the final third are forwards (J. Smith). The book title has Capital Letters On Each Word, the date of the publication is in (brackets), then the book title is in lower case and the date is at the end, even after the publishing house. Also, it doesn’t impress anyone to have a bibliography of 50 books. Actually, I take it back: I enjoy fixing it all; it’s one of my favourite things to do, so keep making a mess.

Photos/diagrams/graphs/figures – I once proofed a document about the thrilling world of outdoor air conditioning. As in, flue systems in Middle Eastern countries, which was, one might say, written in a dry style. Most pages had diagrams of said flue systems and airways constructed in outdoor courtyards. Hey, someone has to learn about this stuff. These diagrams were small, numerous and each had a number and description. But with 5 on each page, every other page, the figure names were all over the place. And of course it was impossible to tell which description matched which diagram, since I’m not up on my outdoor airflow structure dynamics. People, don’t overload the pages with diagrams. You’re on a word count limit, not a page count. Bigger diagrams are fine, spread them out a little, there’s nothing wrong with giving my/the lecturers’ eyes a break.

Formulae – I am a Mac snob. So I’m going to proffer that this problem is mine (and my Mac brethren) alone. If you have ‘macros’, whatever they are, in your document, spare me a thought. I can’t see them; all I get are little question marks inside boxes. If the document opens at all it constantly crashes, I can’t proof what I can’t see. Actually, this little request is more directed at developers – please make Word work for Macs better. Which brings me to…

Word – I’m not a Gates hater, at all, but his products are just terrible. Ok, maybe Excel has some good points, but PowerPoint sucks. And yet here I am, making my living as a person completely tied into Word. My Mac, in the four years I’ve had it, has crashed three times. My copy of Word crashes at least twice a day. Mind you, at least I don’t have to use it to write, I just use it to proof. Oh wait, I’m in it right now. Damn. Ok, better wrap this up; a crash can’t be far away.

Now, these aren’t going to be all of the different writing mistakes that you’ll make when creating your first novel, writing that award-winning dissertation, or a CV that shines. But, you can see the different elements that crop up in papers every time I read through them. It’s okay if you don’t want to follow the list though, as I’ll be happy to look over your work when you send it in to be checked and reviewed by Supaproofread.