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This page is designed to give you some brief, but helpful practical guidelines for proofreading your essays and written work. It also provides advice on the use of computer tools such as spelling and grammar checkers.

1. Problems using a spell checker

A warning about spelling checkers on computers

When you are writing on the computer, you will probably want to use a spell checker. Although spell checkers can pick up many obvious misspellings and typographical errors, they cannot tell if you have chosen the wrong spelling of a word where two spellings are possible (e.g. their or there).

The following famous poem demonstrates this point. Read the poem and try to work out what the poet is saying.

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise

Jerrold H. Zar

Eye halve a spelling chequer,
It came with my pea sea,
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rarely ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I'm shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect in it's weigh,
My chequer tolled me sew

You will see that none of the words used are misspelled; they are only incorrect because the homonym has been used - a homonym is a word that sounds the same but is spelled differently. You have been warned!

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2. Are grammar checkers useful in any way?

When you are writing in English on the computer, you may also want to use a grammar checker. Many people feel that the grammar checker facility on the computer is a poor indicator of grammar errors. However, we would argue that it is useful, at least, for the following points :

  • It indicates when you have over-used the passive voice (this can make the text too 'heavy').
  • It shows when the gap is too large between two words that needs to be reduced.
  • The readability statistics make interesting (indeed sobering) reading! Even in academic writing, you are aiming for a relatively high readability figure. Readability is affected by aspects such as sentence length and choice of words.
  • It indicates when you have used a sentence that is too long. If this happens, you should consider breaking such sentences up.
  • It indicates when you have a 'sentence fragment' - this means that the syntax of the sentence has broken down and that you have missed out something important (either punctuation such as a full stop or a main verb, etc).
  • It does pick up some basic grammar errors such as subject-verb agreement, etc.

Despite the usefulness of the grammar checker, it is no substitute for careful personal proof-reading.

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3. A simple checklist to guide you when you are proofreading your essays and written work

Use this simple checklist to guide you when you are proofreading your essays and written work:

  • Have I used correct tenses in the essay? (the present tense is usually used to mention opinions and ideas from other research)
  • Do I have problems with the agreement of verbs with the subject?
  • Have I used clause structures correctly? ('although' and 'but' are not used together in the same sentence.)
  • Have I considered if my vocabulary is as academic and precise as possible?
  • Have I considered carefully my choice of:
    adjectives ( academic writing tends to be rather formal and usually avoids informal adjectives such as nice and fantastic for example.)
    adverbs (in order to be precise, academic writing tends to avoid overgeneralisations and often uses adverbs such as often, usually, rarely etc. to express caution about the statements being made.)
    verbs (academic writing usually avoids informal phrasal verbs and often uses rather formal Latinate verbs.)
    possible synonyms.
    Sentences (balance between long and short sentences/balance between simple and complex sentences?)
  • Have I proofread the entire essay to make sure there are no typing and spelling errors?
  • Have I set out my references in an appropriate format? (There are different conventions for referencing that can be used. It is useful to discuss with your tutor what conventions are used in your area of study.) See here for some guidelines on referencing.

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