The English Pedant. Don’t shoot me – it was the proofreader wot done it

The writer writes. The sub-editor chops and changes as he or she sees fit. And the proofreader has the final say.

Many people would like to be proofreaders. When they read a piece in a newspaper or magazine they notice things that they perceive to be wrong. And if they are obsessive enough about it they may want to spend their life making minor corrections.

Take that last sentence, for example: you don’t start a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but. We were taught that rule at school. But everyone does it these days.

And is there anything really wrong with it? It reflects how we speak, and writing is becoming ever more conversational.

Does it prevent us from understanding what is being expressed? I don’t think so.

Would it stand up under the unscrupulous scrutiny of a court of law? I doubt it.

If you have never contributed an article or story to a publication, you may think that means your writing has never been examined by a proofreader, but wait a minute: have you ever used Microsoft Word? When a word is underlined, that is the automatic checker telling you you’ve done something wrong. It could be the spelling, spacing or grammar, or it could have noticed that you have repeated a word by accident (it assumes).

Many people rely on the spellchecker to point out errors and are not just grateful but completely accepting of its verdicts. However (he said, avoiding using but at the start of the sentence) where do you think the rules came from? They weren’t generated by an intelligent computer. No, they were drawn up by a human being, and as such are open to debate.

Every one of the rules reflects his or her opinion of what is correct. And quite honestly, you or I may not always agree.

Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.

The one that gets my goat is when you refer to ‘the person who wrote the rules’ and it wants to change it to ‘the person that wrote them’. Is a person a thing? No. A building, a grape or a dog is a thing and is therefore the building, grape or dog that is referred to; a person is a human being and is therefore the person who did something.

We’ve all got pet hates. Even those who you might not expect to be interested will have something to say if you ask them.

This is particularly apparent to the writer who allows people he’s writing about to look at the article before it is published. Let’s say I’ve interviewed you about your new coffee shop. And I’ve started a sentence with but.

“In general it’s fine,’ you may say, assuming the mantle of proofreader. ‘But you start this sentence with but.”

“But you’ve just done that yourself,” I point out. “Anyway, carry on.”

“You say we have a bewildering range of flavours.”


‘I don’t want my customers bewildered.’

This actually happened to me once when I was attempting to describe the variety of nails and screws in a hardware store. Everywhere you looked there was row upon row of little sticks of metal. Now, strictly speaking, I can see the owner’s point, but is anyone really going to be prevented from entering his shop, having read the article, fearing they are going to be overcome by the huge choice and panicking?

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