Home 9 Blog Posts 9 The End of Prof Reading

The End of Prof Reading

by | Jan 26, 2022 | 18 comments


Editor’s Note: Today’s post from Derek Law is the first in our new series of weekly blog posts. Subscribe to the Charleston Hub, and select “New Items and Posts from ATG” for daily email updates. And contact us at [email protected] if you’re interested in being a blog contributor!

As a Humanities graduate I have always rather prided myself on my writing style. I have also taken great joy and pleasure in writing, which has resulted in several published books and far too many book chapters and published conference papers – including Charleston – in a very long career. But the joy of writing was always followed by the dread of publication when the red-ink strewn proofs arrived seeking corrections. There were always what felt a humiliatingly large number of grammatical and even spelling errors to be resolved. Proof-readers resembled Charles Dickens’ schoolmaster character Mister Gradgrind who was hard, cold, unforgiving and only concerned with cold facts and numbers rather than the harmonious flow of my prose. But they were an essential part of the process of producing well-researched, articulate and mellifluous compositions.

Following retirement I have much less to say and so much less to publish, but have opened a new avenue of writing by undertaking book reviews for professional and historical journals. In the last few years this has uncovered for me the bewildering puzzle of excellent books from excellent publishers with what seem to be not just a few odd spelling mistakes, but quite egregious mistakes which I have come to assume can only have come from the proof-reading being done by algorithms rather than human beings.

What first alerted me to this was a history of the US Marine Corp in World War 2. Possibly the most iconic image of that war is the photograph of a handful of Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi as they win the Battle of Iwo Jima. At least that was what I had always called the battle, only to find that the proof-reading algorithm (presumably) uses an American rather than an international geographical dictionary, so that the Marines were not in the Pacific at all but at Iowa (sic!) Jima. What is disturbing is that this cannot really be classified as a spelling mistake or a grammatical mistake since both the words and the grammar are correct in a purely literal sense. Nor is it fake news – or does it become so?

My second favourite is what we used to call a “howler.” Again, grammar and spelling are correct but what is one to make of a nation which replaces its sailing ships with “steal” ships? My third and final example comes from a book on the Crimean War which describes the Charge of the Light Brigade. Entirely wrongly but perhaps appropriately it offers the description of the massacred troopers as Calvary Men rather than cavalry men. I could cite many more such examples which exist in almost every book I have reviewed in the last few years.

I suppose that what I find most surprising and perhaps most depressing is that it seems that even the most reputable of publishers cannot be bothered – or cannot afford? – to have a real human being read over the final draft to make sure that such ridiculous errors are removed. Just as unsettling is how much it undermines the author’s reputation. Did he or she really write that? How much can one trust the rest of the book if these careless (as in couldn’t care less) mistakes have survived? 

So has traditional proof-reading really disappeared, or as these just the musings of a grumpy old man who thinks the world is going to the dogs? And is everything covid by these musings?

About the Author: Derek Law is Emeritus Professor of Informatics at the University of Strathclyde. He was chair of the JISC Advance Board until its closure in 2015 and has worked in several British universities and has published and spoken at conferences extensively. He is a regular project evaluator for the EU and has undertaken almost fifty institutional reviews. Most of his work has been to do with the development of networked resources in higher education and with the creation of national information policy and he has been PI on some twenty research projects. Recently he has worked on the future of academic information services. A committed internationalist he has been involved in projects and research in over forty countries and is a former Treasurer of IFLA. He was awarded the Barnard prize for contributions to Medical Informatics in 1993, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1999, an honorary degree by the Sorbonne in 2000, the IFLA medal in 2003, Honorary Fellowship of CILIP in 2004 and was an OCLC Distinguished Scholar in 2006. He has taught at library schools in Australia, Malawi, Poland and at UCLA.


  1. Elizabeth G Holmes

    My husband is a Professor of Strategy and Policy at the Naval War College and has published many books and articles. He always reads the final “proofed” copy and at times has had arguments with publishers when they have “corrected” things that were not wrong. He doesn’t want his name put on something that has the type of errors you mention above.

  2. Angie Strait

    I 100% agree. I’ve even found multiple errors in higher ed textbooks that should have easily been caught and corrected before publication. For the price, one should at least be able to assume they are error free.

  3. Angie Strait

    By the way, love the title. lol

  4. Derek Law

    As an (amateur!) naval historian myself all I can say is good for him!

  5. Derek Law

    [blush] Glad you like the title!

  6. Eleanor Parker

    Completely agree with you. I can’t say I get it right every time, but as a comms person I feel deeply ashamed when I miss a typo or (God forbid) I use poor grammar. Even sitting in of an evening reading some fiction, I get irate when I spot an error in a novel – puts me right off, which is awful because clearly a lot of work has gone into it.

    I’d liken it to watching a period drama and noticing a Coke can in the background – it’s a distraction that draws your attention away from whatever you’re trying to watch/read/enjoy.

  7. Michael Upshall

    Excellent post, Derek: I agree with you about the woeful level of spelling and grammar in published titles. Although there are examples of spell-checkers replacing something sensible with nonsense, I’m afraid to say there are even more examples where a human has just missed something, or added unnecessary words. From a recent book, I found phrases such as “entirely captivated” (could you be half-heartedly captivated?) Or a “personal delight” (is there an impersonal delight?) Or “actively manoeuvring” (difficult to do it any other way). Once there were editors in publishers’ offices who deleted redundant words like these.

  8. T. Scott Plutchak

    Alas, it’s not just proofreading. Publishers of all kinds have substantially scaled back on editing. I just finished Jeremy Dauber’s “American Comics: A History.” It’s a fine read, if you’re into comics, full of very well researched and documented details. But line by line, the writing is, well, let’s just say not great. So many cases where the reader is stopped by a word, and when you puzzle out the sentence, you realize he must’ve meant a similar word, but with a very different meaning. “Ineffable”? Oh, he must’ve meant “indelible.” “Buttressed” the argument? But your sentence says the opposite — you meant “rebuts”. Many cases of this. And then there’s the long, multi-claused sentences that the reader has to gently pick apart trying to figure out where the subject went. Examples of these on every page. And published by W.W. Norton. But addressing these would’ve required an editor who went carefully through, sentence by sentence, asking Jeremy, “Is this really the word you want? Maybe this sentence needs to be broken up a bit.” Etc. But that kind of editing is expensive and time-consuming and the publisher makes a business decision that it’s not worth it. The book’s sales are not going to be sufficiently affected. They’re probably right.

  9. Bob Holley

    To give further examples of proofreaders adding errors, I had a correct use of “de jure” changed to “de facto,” much to my embarrassment. My spouse talked about a “toney suburb” that became a “tiny suburb” in her piece in American Libraries. I suspect most literate authors could contribute many more such examples.

  10. Derek Law

    And if we start on author errors please don’t get me started on those who confuse “uninterested” and “disinterested”, and my pet hate of confusing “overestimate” and “underestimate”. It is quite possible to underestimate my hatred of this , but never to overestimate it.

  11. David Gibbs

    Were these typos intentional to see if we were paying attention?
    U.S. Marine Corp
    or as these just the musings
    is everything covid [that one is a joke, I know]

  12. Leah Hinds

    Thanks Derek, your usual sharp wit and humor shine through in both the title and intentional typos while addressing a serious topic. Our social media intern added her own take in the text of a Tweet sent to advertise this post when she asked “Is the art oof proofreading really dead?”

  13. Katina Strauch

    I once had a gentleman who regularly wrote a column in ATG. We pay a proofreader and send the column to the author before publication. One of my authors only wanted to proof the print copy instead of the emailed copy. Do you think it’s easier to spot typos or other errors in print than in the electronic format?

  14. Barbara Scott, Final Eyes

    My dad, a Marine who fought in the South Pacific in WWII, would have lamented the Iowa Jima error, even as he laughed about it.

    As an editor, I can vouch for the fact that publishers are not editing manuscripts the way they used to. Most of my clients come to me because their publisher told them to get their manuscript edited by two different editors before submitting the final. But the problem is, many of those writers don’t know a good editor when they meet one. People call themselves editors all the time, when they’re simply not. They may have been a high school English teacher, for instance, or a journalism student in college. But that is not close to enough experience to edit a writer’s book.

    Editing is a skill that is part talent and part ongoing commitment to self-education and learning. Though my degree is in English, that certainly did NOT prepare me to be an editor. My shelves are full of books on editing, style, grammar, linguistics, and so on. You have to love the craft to be an editor. It’s not enough to catch an occasional typo or to add a comma here or there. It’s a skill that’s mostly developed through devoted self-education and experience.

  15. Derek

    Barbara, all I can say is hear, hear!!
    So apposite

  16. Barbara Scott

    Hi Katina,

    To answer your question about print vs. electronic, yes, I do think it’s easier to catch errors when reading the proof in print. Of course it depends on how accustomed you are to reading online.

    When I had to make the transition from print to electronic, it was hard. I just couldn’t seem to focus at the same granular level as I’d been able to in print. I got used to it by doing it all the time and now wouldn’t go back to reading in print, but it took me a while to feel comfortable with it.

    I’m still not sure I do as good a job as I used to, when I actually had pages in front of me and a red pen twirling between my fingers!

  17. Erin Kennedy

    Your article hit me to my core. Thanks, I needed that.

    You’ll hate me for this, but it’s actually Marine CORPS, not corp……

  18. Derek Law

    Hi Erin, I’d like to pretend that I sneaked in two proofreading errors – apart from the jokes – to see if anyone noticed. You got one of them! And love your pun too. LOL


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