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Proofreading online versus using a local professional

Posted on 30 June 2017 by James Cowan in Proofreading

Where to start? In several earlier blogs I discuss the fact that English is a language not of rules but of conventions, and that the conventions differ between regions. Thus to an American reader, saying "his clothes fitted him well" is at best weird, and at worst wrong, as American for "did fit" is the same as for "do fit", and both are "fit". And though I was born in the UK, I was brought up from the age of 11 in New Zealand, and when I later went back to the UK for a while, on many occasions it was brought home to me that the two groups use words differently. Not as much perhaps as the UK-US differences, but I repeatedly found myself in difficulty – words sounded the same, but either meant something slightly different, or had different weight (for example, in NZ "some bugger stole my pen" is not unacceptable, but in the UK it certainly is!).

So it is a pre-requisite for a proofreader that they use the language in the same way you, the writer, do, which probably means that they are either in the same linguistic area as you are, or they have a good depth of understanding of your version of the language. With that in mind, if the work is to be published on a website, someone has to be aware that your readers are not always going to be local to you, and so may not be prepared for the nuances of the language. Similarly, if my client is writing for an overseas customer, if I can make the end-reader's experience as easy as possible, I am doing what I should – regardless of which region any of the three of us lives in!

One interesting example of this may be found in car names. Rolls Royce were apparently once about to produce a new model and tested the name across various languages to see that they were not going to cause themselves problems. So there is no "Silver Mist" to follow the Spirits, Clouds and Ghosts. The reason: "mist" apparently means "manure" in Germany. Similarly the Toyota MR2 did not do well in France: when spoken, the name, pronounced by a Frenchman, is almost exactly the same word as "excrement"! (I am not certain how apocryphal is the suggestion that "Coca Cola" means "bite the wet tadpole" in one of the Chinese languages, either.)

But even when a piece of writing is not translated but is merely translocated, as I suggested above, difficulties may arise. I worked with computers in my previous life, and wrote a lot of "programs" – it is an industry which has largely been taken over by the US, even if it originated in Manchester or at Bletchley Park! On the other hand, I watch TV "programmes" on a regular basis. Which cannot happen in the US – they only have "programs" in both contexts. Truly, as Winston Churchill said, the Americans and the English are "Two nations divided by a common language."

Thus the problem with online proofreading services. You, the client, may or may not have any idea where the proofreader for your work will actually reside or have been educated. So you may not get the result you need. And there are a lot of websites which purport to connect proofreaders with authors – and the proofreaders bid for the work ("racing to be cheapest"). So if I was to offer to do your work for a specified amount, here in New Zealand, and you found someone online prepared to do it for a tenth of my quote, I suggest that you should be exceeding careful of the result.


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