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The the 5 most common proofreading mistakes

There are ten deliberate errors in this article. See how many you can spot.

The the 5 most common proofreading mistakes

If you didn't spot the 'double the' in the subject line, don't beat yourself up. You're in good company. Very few people spot a 'double the'. In fact, very few people are good at spotting most of the common proofreading mistakes, particularly in their own writing.

Not wired for proofreading

The human brain isn't geared to notice detail. It's very good at spotting what it needs to see — a mate, food, danger (not necessarily in that order) — but unless told otherwise, it tends to miss the little stuff.

If you've never seen The Invisible Gorilla test, have a look now:

Incredible, eh?

Spot the gorilla

So, when it comes to proofreading, stop working on instinct. Train yourself to look for gorillas.

1. Homophones

Homophones (from the Greek words homos, meaning same, and phone, meaning sound) are words that have the same sound but different meanings. They occur when we type quickly and because they don't look wrong, we don't see them. Unfortunately, spelling and grammar checkers won't spot these. Your on you're own here.

Some commonly overlooked homophones:

  • Anti/ante
  • Break/brake
  • Compliment/complement
  • Hear/here
  • Its/it's
  • One/won
  • Principal/principle
  • Sight/site
  • Stationery/stationary
  • To/too/two
  • Bare and bear
  • By/buy
  • Fair/fare
  • Hole/whole
  • New/knew
  • Peace/piece
  • Right/write
  • Steal/steel
  • There/their/they're
  • You're/your

2. Inconsistency

There are so many potential inconsistencies, its hardly surprising we miss a few. We don't spot them because individually they're not wrong. It's only when they occur again later in the document in a different form that a problem occurs.

Here are some classic inconsistencies to look out for:


4 July 2017, July 4 2017, 4th July 2017, July 4th 2016

Compound words

proof-reading, proofreading, proof reading

American and British English

colour/color, programme/program, licence/license


Title case (Second Quarter Report), Sentence case (Second quarter report), Uppercase (SECOND QUARTER REPORT)


3.00pm, 3pm, 15.00, 3 o'clock


3, 5, 9/three, five, nine


%/percent, +/plus, &/and


one or two space after full stops, hyphens (-) used instead of dashes (—)

Double and single quote marks

"We're delighted with the result." 'It was a tough campaign - but we did it!'

3. Apostrophe problems

With apostrophes being used to show possession (belonging to something) and contraction (missing letters) it's know wonder some people get confused.

Common apostrophe problems:

Wrong: Its uncertain whose to blame.

Wrong: Childrens' clothes are usually cheaper than adults clothes.

Wrong: I'm selling my old DVD's.

Wrong: We're going to Paul's and Joe's party.

Right: It's uncertain who's to blame.

Right: Children's clothes are usually cheaper than adults' clothes.

Right: I'm selling my old DVDs.

Right: We're going to Paul and Joe's party. (when Paul and Joe share a party)

4. Poor syntax

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. Poor syntax is often due to missing a key word; sometimes it's simply the right words in the wrong order. Poor syntax is easy to miss because even poorly constructed sentences can still makes sense.

Examples of poor syntax:

Poor: She served sandwiches to guests on paper plates.

Poor: After eating my lunch, the waiter seemed keen to talk.

Poor: For sale: bed for cat shaped like a dustbin

Better: She served sandwiches on paper plates to guests.

Better: After I'd eaten my lunch, the waiter seemed keen to talk.

Better: For sale: dustbin shaped cat bed (or 'dustbin shaped bed for a cat')

5. Double or missing words

Double words aren't a problem if you're using Word with the the Spelling & Grammar Checker running as you write, or if you run a check the end. (Why would you NOT run a check?)

But if you're not using the checker, or you're reading a print out, watch out for double or missing words. They're easy mistakes to make if you type fast but not so easy to spot.

Did you spot the ten deliberate errors in this article?

If you'd like a marked-up version showing the 10 mistakes, please email [email protected] using the subject headline 'Answers to the 5 most common proofreading mistakes'.

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