Step 10: Proofread Strategies

Finally, you are at the last stages in completing your assignment! Before you hand in your paper, take time to proofread. Look for errors in grammar, punctuation, and mechanics because they matter.

After the hard work of revision take some time to carefully read over your “final” draft to identify any problems you might have overlooked. It often helps to have a second reader proofread for you, but there is no reason that you should not also become adept at polishing your own work.

Proofreading Strategies

Learn a Few Basics to Begin

To help you get to the sentence-level errors that are most common, we suggest that you start with the resource, “Hit Parade of Errors in Grammar, Punctuation, and Style ” (University of Toronto).

Use Time to Your Benefit

A day or two can make a big difference. Just as it is helpful to allow a space of time between revisions, so it is also helpful to allow time between finishing your "final" draft and proofreading.

Use Strategies to Identify Errors and Correct Them

Several strategies and tips can make identifying and correcting errors in your work easier. 

  • Read your work aloud. Reading your work aloud is a good strategy for detecting errors because it forces you to slow down your reading (you read faster when you do it in your head). Also, it engages your sense of hearing: sometimes you can hear an error in grammatical structure more easily than you can read one on paper.
  • Read from a hard copy of your paper. For many people, there is something about reading a hard copy text that makes it easier to detect problems. Try it and see if it makes a difference to you.
  • Read from the end to the beginning. If you find yourself skimming over your text or attending too much to the content rather than the form of the text, try starting on the last page and working towards the first.
  • Keep a notebook in which you write down the types of errors you are making. Identifying the problems you make and keeping track of them is useful for two reasons:
    • It is a systematic way of developing your skills because you can use this notebook to flag exactly the types of errors you make so that proofreading your next paper targets just these errors.
    • It provides an opportunity for you to make explicit your knowledge of correct usage and to rehearse this knowledge by writing down both the problem and its solution in your notebook.

Continue to Add to Your Grammar and Style Knowledge

To learn how experienced writers approach proofreading and editing, you should continue to develop your knowledge of language, mechanics, usage, and style.

Here are three good titles to start with, all available at the Laurier Writing Centre:

  • The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing by the Translation Bureau of Public Works and Government Services Canada
  • The Canadian Writer’s Handbook by William E. Messenger, Jan de Bruyn, Judy Brow and Ramona Montagnes
  • Guide to Canadian English Usage by Margery Fee and Janice McApline

A Note for Graduate Students

If you are a graduate student, you will need to use field-specific style guides, and it is important that you take time to read your APA or MLA publication or style guide. Spend some time reading the introductory chapters in addition to looking up reference information.

Consult The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) because of its comprehensive, detailed coverage of style issues important in academic writing.

Punctuation Patterns

To understand punctuation, think in broad patterns. Consider how independent clauses can be put together with or without conjunctions, and then think about internal punctuation inside the sentence boundary.

We have used short, simple sentences to emphasize the regularity of the punctuation patterns and know full well how artificial these sentence examples are.

Independent Clause

Consists of a subject and a verb.

Example: Birds fly.

Independent Clause; Independent Clause

If there is an implied connection between two independent clauses, use a semicolon. It tells the reader to think about what the connection is.

Birds fly; fish swim

Independent Clause; Conjunctive Adverb, Independent Clause

To tell the reader what the connection is between the two independent clauses, use a conjunctive adverb. It clarifies the logical connection you want to make, but it does not join the two independent clauses. It functions as a sentence adverb in the second independent clause. Consider the following examples.

  • Birds fly; however, fish swim.
  • Birds fly; therefore, fish swim.
  • Birds fly; nevertheless, fish swim.
  • Birds fly; consequently, fish swim.
  • Birds fly; furthermore, fish swim.
  • Birds fly; moreover, fish swim.

Independent Clause, Coordinating Conjunction Independent Clause

To join the two independent clauses to emphasize the connection between them, use a comma and coordinating conjunction that spells out what the connection is. Consider the following examples.

  • Birds fly, and fish swim.
  • Birds fly, but fish swim.
  • Birds fly, for fish swim.
  • Birds fly, nor fish swim.
  • Birds fly, so fish swim.
  • Birds fly, yet fish swim.

Dependent Clause, Independent Clause or Subordinate Clause, Main Clause

This pattern consists of a subordinating conjunction + subject + verb, subject + verb.

Other subordinating conjunctions: if, since, when, while, although, after etc. For a detailed explanation of how to use subordination and coordination in academic writing, see “Academic Writing and Subordination.

Example: Because they have hollow bones, birds fly.

Independent Clause Dependent Clause (No Comma Required)

If the independent clause comes before the subordinate clause, you don’t need the comma because the reader knows which main idea the dependent clause depends on. However if you think a comma will help avoid confusion, put it in.

Example: Birds fly if they have hollow bones.

Using Commas Around a Non-Essential (Non-Restrictive) Word, Phrase or Clause

Use the finger test to find out if the inserted word, phrase or clause is non-essential. Cover the inserted text with your finger, and if the sentence makes sense without the covered text, put commas around it. It is not essential, or you could say that it does not restrict the meaning of the main clause.

Example: Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 during a round-the-world trip, set new records for long-distance flying in the 1930s.

Avoiding Commas Around an Essential (Restrictive) Word, Phrase or Clause

If the inserted text is essential, as in the sentence below, it would be completely illogical to put commas around it.

× A mind never returns to its original dimensions.
√ A mind that is stretched never returns to its original dimensions.

Some examples are adapted from Writing: A College Handbook by Heffernan and Lincoln.

Examples of Punctuation Errors

A sentence should make a point, and if two ideas are run together, you blur the boundaries between the points you make. That will affect the intellectual quality of your writing.

× Birds fly fish swim.
√ Birds fly. Fish swim.

Don’t use a comma as if it were a period. A period marks the end of a complete sentence; a comma does not. It can’t be used to join or “splice” two independent clauses.

Consider using a semicolon if there is an implied connection between the two main clauses. If not, use a period.

× Birds fly, fish swim.
√ Birds fly; fish swim.

A sentence fragment is a group of words punctuated as if it were a complete sentence but unable to stand alone. The first example is a subordinate clause, which by definition needs to be attached to an independent clause to be a complete sentence. This particular error probably explains why many students have been told never to start a sentence with ‘because,’

× Because they have hollow bones.
√ Because they have hollow bones, birds fly.

The second example is a noun phrase that consists of a present participle, ‘flying,’ functioning as an adjective, modifying the noun, ‘birds.’ The present participle can be confusing because it can also function as a verb when combined with the helping verb “to be”: ‘I am flying,’ for example.

× Flying birds.
√ I am watching the flying birds.

Although this example is too short to demonstrate the error well, it does make a point that for clarity we need to mark where one main clause ends and another begins.

× Birds fly and fish swim.
√ Birds fly, and fish swim.

Remember to mark the end of the dependent clause with a comma. It lets the reader know exactly where the independent clause starts.

× Because they have hollow bones birds fly.
√ Because they have hollow bones, birds fly.

Putting a comma between subject and verb in a sentence makes no sense. Subject and verb form the core of the sentence, and putting a comma between them creates an artificial break that interferes with the point you are trying to make.

If you often make this error, you may have been taught to put a comma where you would take a breath (and you’re taking breaths in weird places!).

× Birds, fly.