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Are proofreading marks still used in modern writing?

On my first day in publishing, Monday 12 January 1981, I was taken to my desk and shown my in tray, out tray and ashtray. Two office boys in brown coats then arrived, each carrying a thick stack of paper they deposited in my in tray, one pile at right angles to the other. One of the lads soon returned with a sheet of A4 and some pens and pencils. I was asked to please check the clean galleys against the pile of marked-up proofs, using the sheet of proofreading marks he’d just given me.

The proofreading marks immediately grabbed my attention. I was struck by the list of spiky red and sometimes green symbols gracing the margins of the typeset proofs. I imagined these hieroglyphics forming a mysterious code only the initiated could understand. But no, a glance down the list of marks and their meanings revealed that the marks represented nothing more than written instructions to take words out, put words in, or move them around a bit. I was hooked all the same. I would soon become a galley slave.


The little dog’s paw - basic proofreading marks
The little dog’s paw - basic proofreading marks

On your marks…

At first I would ask colleagues to look over my work, or sneak a peek at theirs. I soon learned the importance of marking-up clearly and correctly, so that those reviewing or implementing would understand exactly what was required. Not all reviewers wrote neatly and many of us became expert at deciphering the handwriting of others, competitive even.

Get set…

In the early 1980s, all printed material was still being composed by qualified typesetters (like my uncle) though phototypesetting using massive clunking glass grid computer machinery was starting to replace the even larger hot metal mechanical typesetters. Part of the printing college training of the typesetter was learning to proofread, so there was little or no divergence in the use of proofreading marks. There was even a BSI standard.

The original standard from 1976
The original standard from 1976

A few of my favourite marks

The caret mark – a simple, no-nonsense and positive instruction to insert something that’s missing.

The caret mark

The delete/close-up mark – looks like a sketch of one side of a human face. The more fanciful among us think we can see different personalities in each one.

The delete/close-up mark

Stet – is Latin and means ‘let it stand’ or ‘ignore my mark’. It’s used less often these days since the invention of the erasable pen. But no one thought to tell me they were erasable, so for a year I was still fiddling about with messy correction fluid.


Ch-ch-ch-ch changes

In the late 1980s, two developments shattered this status quo. The first was the explosion of desktop publishing. Now everyone was a typesetter and many of them had little knowledge of the finer points of typesetting – including proofreading marks.

Then came the internet. I got a job at one of the early pioneers of digital advertising. They had never heard of proofreaders until they were told to employ one by their biggest client after a howler of a typo had crept into a three-word digital ad that had been displayed worldwide. It was hard going at first. Genius coders straight out of college had no time for bits of paper with red squiggles on. Exciting times for me though.

The arrival of word processing software such as Microsoft Word meant you could now amend files directly, without the need for proofreading symbols. To share your proposed amends, you use Track Changes, the changes later being accepted or rejected. You can also add Comments for addressing queries.

Then came PDFs, which are normally non-amendable versions of documents created in other programmes such as Word or InDesign. You can either print out the pages and mark them old school style, or proofread them online using the mark-up tools provided. There are several ways to use these tools and we at Accuracy Matters follow a specific style, for consistency and because often more than one of us may be working on the same document.

It’s a bit like using traditional proofreading marks except that they are applied digitally rather than manually.

So, proofreading marks are still used, even if not always in the same way these days. Though Accuracy Matters does have a few clients who insist on the old-fashioned way for reasons of security and confidentiality, where proofreading is done in a secure office and no mobile phones or other devices are allowed.

Obelise your marginalia

The printing press with movable type was invented in 1436 (earlier if you include China and Korea). Before that, books (and copies of them) were produced by hand by scribes, on parchment or paper, which was expensive and hard to come by. The only alternative was to carve the text into a woodblock and print from that; also very laborious.

Scribes often made mistakes and when they did they would often try to scrape the ink off, or cover it, if they could. Otherwise, they would simply cross out the mistake as neatly as possible and start again on the next page. Thus the proofreading mark transcended mere instruction and was elevated to text in its own right, an art form, even.

Marginalia were common anyway. There were so few copies of a given book, and precious few revised editions, that each copy would be read by many scholars who would often add their own explanatory comments in the margins.

The sun hasn’t set on red marks yet

If more and more content is being generated by artificial intelligence (AI) then I guess AI is proofreading it too. This may spell the end of proofreading, never mind the proofreading mark. But perhaps not for a while yet. Read more about whether AI will replace editors. I still hope that when I go to the residence for Old Age Proofreaders I’ll be given a framed list of proofreading marks to put on the wall, just like the one I was given on my first day of work.

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