Everybodyâ€™s Guide to Proofreading How To Get Your Eagle Eye On
by Leah McClellan
And then there is that other thing: when you think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don't know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. â€”Mark Twain Letter to Sir Walter Bessant
The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading Uncopyright 2010 You are completely free to use this ebook as you like. Share it, print it, send it, reproduce it, post it, copy it —no problem. I would, however, appreciate it if you keep my name on it or give me appropriate credit in some way. It makes the world a better place if we’re all kind to one another. But if that’s not where you’re at, that’s OK. All content and layout by Leah McClellan Peaceful Planet
A Few More Words
The Rules: For Printing 12
Introduction Just because you don’t have a proofreader on your team or in your family doesn’t mean that errors in your blog posts, on your website, in your school research papers, or in business communication are inevitable. And just because your blog or website isn’t the New York Times or you don’t have specific training as a writer and proofreader doesn’t mean your standards can’t be just as high. Think typos and grammatical or spelling mistakes don’t matter? Think again. Even if only a few people who read your writing notice the errors, it matters. You won’t lose a customer or a reader with error-free work, but typos could cost you. That’s where The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading comes in. I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, so I have a sharp eye for the written word. I’ve also been a creative writer since I was very young as well as a professional writer, proofreader, and copyeditor for over ten years. That helps.
Second, proofreading is a science. While writing and editing are considered art, proofreading is a matter of knowing the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation—and knowing when you can break them. Following tried-and-true techniques and developing a system is critical to proofreading as well, and that can be learned and improved. Don’t remember the rules? Do you place a comma where it “sounds right” or where you pause, but you’re not sure it works? No problem. The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading not only explains my proofreading technique, it also covers some basic grammar and punctuation rules and provides links to the authorities that I go to when I need help. This little ebook is short and simple. But if you want to get your eagle eye on and proofread your own work accurately, these tips will help. Best wishes to you,
But when it comes to proofreading, two things come into play. First, I do have training. You don’t get an M.A. in English if you can’t write error-free papers, and I wrote plenty of those. Plus, linguistics classes—in which convoluted sentences are methodically diagrammed to fill 11x14 sheets of paper—taught me to look at language analytically. Most of us have had some sort of training, even if it was grammar classes long ago, and it doesn’t take much to refresh.
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Part One: The Technique
soon have the eagle eye of a professional proofreader.
Many people say it’s easy to see errors in someone else’s writing, but it’s difficult to proofread our own work. Why?
Tip: Don’t proofread until you’re completely done with the actual writing and editing. When I do
Here’s why proofing your own work can be challenging.
a final proof of my own work, I make sure all my writing and editing is out of the way. That means I’m satisfied with the message, the length, the organization, the flow, the rhythm, the slant, the attitude, the sentence structure, and the word choices, among many other things.
When you’re reading what others have written, much of it is unexpected. You’re alert as you read and try to make sense of things. The other writer’s “voice” may be unfamiliar to you and, if you hit a bump in the road—an error—you really feel it. You see it. Even if you don’t know exactly what the problem is, the writing won’t flow well if numerous errors exist. When you read your own writing, on the other hand, you know what to expect. You already have a picture in your mind of what it’s about, and you tend to skim over words and groups of words. Plus, you know your own voice and, even if there are errors in your writing, you don’t “hear” them or see them because you know what it’s about. You’re in a hurry, and your mind fills in the blanks as you skim over things. You might even be daydreaming—even if you’re reading out loud. If you don’t have a good proofreading system, your work may have errors that detract from its effectiveness. So what can you do? You can learn to proofread your own writing—accurately and consistently—by learning the techniques and tips that follow. With a little practice, you’ll
It’s all done, except for proofreading. At this point, I won’t have many errors, but there are always a few. And I’ll be reading not for story or content or how it “sounds” but for mechanics like spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Tip: Forget the content or the story. Focus on mechanics. When we read, we get pictures in our heads, especially if our writing is something personal. In some of my blog posts, for example, I write from personal experience. I know the story like the back of my hand. Even though I craft the tale to work for the purpose and leave out a lot of mundane or irrelevant details, I still know the story. And that can make it difficult to proofread because I can easily skip over words and phrases without losing a beat—and miss something.
Tip: If you make a last minute change to a few words while proofreading, be sure to check the entire sentence. Many errors in blog posts or on websites are words left behind (that don’t make sense) or an extra space or two after a change was made.
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Step One: Sentence by sentence
Subject: I. Past tense verb: was hit. Fine. Check spelling. Just. After. I. turned. 19. I. Was. Hit. By. A. Car. Fine. Next.
Tip: Make sure you have no distractions or potential interruptions. That means no music, no cell
“It was bad, and I was in the hospital for a long time.”
phone, no email—nothing but your writing. You have to be able to “hear” what’s going on in your head and monitor yourself. Allow plenty of time.
Capital letter, period, good. Comma. Independent clause, subject, verb—‘it was.’ Another one—‘I was’ followed by two prepositional phrases. Fine. Coordinating conjunction—and— connects them. Good. Gets comma before and. Hmmm, that’s such a simple construction.....nope, intended. It’s done. Next.
Tip: Read out loud. You’re less likely to skip over words or start daydreaming. But be careful—even while reading aloud our thoughts can drift. Sometimes I tap or slap a beat with my hand—one beat per word or syllable—to help me stay focused. While proofing a recent blog post “Have You Forgiven Anyone Lately?” here’s what the process looks like: “Just after I turned 19, I was hit by a car.” I read the first sentence out loud slowly as a collection of words, not as the beginning of a story, as an event, or as anything personal. No thinking about it, no thought-pictures in my mind. My eyes scan the sentence as I read, and I go back and forth examining everything. It’s a different kind of focus, and I’m on the alert for daydreaming or distracting thoughts. Here’s what goes through my mind as I proofread that sentence:
Check only for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Make notes about anything else for now. “It was six months before I walked again without crutches, and it took much longer than that to walk without pain or dizziness.” Capital letter, period. Good. Two clauses—first one independent ‘it was.’ Then ‘I walked’ joined with before— dependent. Fine. Next clause—independent with ‘it took.’ Good. Coordinating conjunction ‘and.’ Fine. Comma. Good. Spelling. It. Was. Six....oops. Six! Spelled out! Wait—‘19’ up above.....what rule am I using for numbers here? At this point, I make a quick note because I’m not checking for repetitive stuff that would take me away from my sentence-bysentence focus. It’s a distraction, so I keep going. When you’re done with the sentence-by-sentence proofreading, check your notes.
A capital letter starts it. A period ends it. Good. Comma: first clause is dependent, second clause is independent. Good. —————————————————————————— 3 —————————————————————————— The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading
In this case, I realized I had several instances of “19” whereas other numbers under 100 were spelled out. Since that’s the rule I use for my blog posts—any number under 100 is spelled out—I went back and scanned for all numbers under 100 and spelled them out.
Step Two: Check facts, dates, quotes, tables, text boxes, and anything repetitive separately. Tip: Print the document and use a pencil or pen to mark errors. Then go back to your computer to fix them. Check them off as you make changes. If you don’t like to waste paper, use the back side of junk mail or anything already destined for recycling.
Tip: Proofread for one type of error at a time. While going over sentences, leave end punctuation or contractions and anything else for a separate step. Divvy things up according to what works for you. Your brain can only hold a certain amount of information at one time. Don’t overload it. Depending on the type of writing I’m doing, I’ll make separate steps for fact-checking, documentation, dates, and so on. I may make four or five passes on one blog post or article before I hit publish or send to a client. Even then, in the case of blog posts, I’ll re-read it once again later on or the next day. Once in awhile I catch something very nit-picky or I might want to reword something. Ideally, I’d let it sit in draft mode for another day, but I find I see my own writing differently—more objectively—after it’s published, or at least in preview mode.
Step Three: Check format Even the simplest document has a format. It could be spacing in between paragraphs, left margins, or indentation and line spacing of bullet lists. Formatting should be the last step because word or punctuation changes can make spacing shift and, if the document is long, there’s a lot to examine. In a typical article or blog post, I check for spacing in between paragraphs, around subheadings, and at the beginning of paragraphs. I also examine lists and check for spacing after bullets, titles, subheadings, quotes, and captions.
Tip: Typos and errors in blog or website title tags and meta descriptions will show up in search results and on Facebook. The last thing I check in a blog post is the title tag and meta description. When you post a blog article and search engines pick up that meta description, it’s all over. Meta description errors show up on Facebook, too, and they don’t go away, last I heard, even if you delete the post, fix the error, and try again. Proofreading an ebook or a newsletter is a little more complex than the average blog post or article. Font sizes and colors in titles, subheadings, tips, text boxes, and anything bolded as well as links all have to be scrutinized. But I still follow the same steps and leave format for the very end. If formatting is complex, I separate that into steps as well and check things one at a time.
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At first, though I didn’t think they would, Bobby and Billy finally—finally—little by little dragged their butts out of bed, got dressed, and went to school.
Part Two: The Rules This is by no means a complete discussion of all the rules for grammar and punctuation. But if you know these basics like the back of your hand, you’ll be in good shape.
Tip: You can break the rules when you know what they are. Pay attention to what others have written— beyond the ideas and content—to see how they do things. Get creative! If you’re not sure it works, stick with the rules.
Tip: If in doubt, throw it out! If you’re not sure of grammar, word choice, usage, or correct punctuation in a particular sentence and don’t have time to look it up, just let it go. Change it to something simple that you know is correct. Simple is often better, anyway.
An incomplete sentence lacks a subject, a verb, or both. In some cases, it might have a subject and a verb, but a subordinating conjunction makes that clause dependent, or subordinate, meaning it can’t stand alone. Incomplete sentences: Though I went to work early (subordinating conjunction though). Came home from school (who?). Out in the garage fixing the battered, old lawn mower (who?). Jim from the store (what is Jim doing?). Complete: Though I went to work early, I got nothing done. Coordinating conjunctions join words, phrases, and sentences.
Step One: The basics
Tip: The seven coordinating conjunctions are and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but. Memorize them.
To start, here’s a quick review of a few (very basic) rules you need to keep in mind. You probably remember all of this from high school, or it will look familiar, at least.
Mnemonic devices like FANBOYS, YAFNOBS, or FONYBAS might help.
A complete sentence is also called an independent clause. It has at least one subject, often a noun(s). It also has at least one verb, which is a part of the sentence called the predicate.
Subordinating conjunctions act as transitions between ideas and indicate time, place, and cause and effect relationships.
Here are some independent clauses with subjects and verbs in italics:
Tip: Common subordinating conjunctions include: after, although, because, if, unless, until, in order
that, as long as, whenever, as soon as, wherever, since, while, so that, before, even though.
He threw the ball.
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Step Two: Sentence patterns and punctuation This is just basic sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. But knowing these common constructions is a solid foundation that will take you far. When I was a sophomore in college, one of my literature professors wrote these patterns—or something very similar— on the white board on the first day of class. We had to copy them in our notebooks because we’d need them for the second part of the papers we would write. When she graded our (many) papers, she noted errors and drew short symbols, similar to those below, in the margins. If we hadn’t included a comma, for example, in a sentence like the one in the first rule below, she drew this: —— , and —— . We had to write out the full rule on the backs of our papers as well as the correction and return it to her during the next class. Two semesters and thirty papers later, the rules were embedded in my brain forever. I’m grateful for it, even though it was a lot of work, and I’m very happy to pass it along to you. Memorize them. Tape them on a wall near your computer or keep them on your desk as you write, edit, or proofread. I’ve added them separately at the end of this ebook for your printing convenience.
1. Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction get a comma. independent clause , and independent clause . Jessica liked to have a big breakfast, but she usually skipped lunch (remember: and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but). Mnemonic Tip: think of these clauses as two independent adults. They need a little space provided by the comma. 2. An independent clause followed by a dependent clause and joined by a coordinating conjunction does not get a comma. and dependent clause independent clause Jorge was a wild and crazy guy and also a devoted father.
Mnemonic Tip: A dependent clause is like a child: dependent. Don’t separate the child from the adult (the independent clause). 3. An independent clause followed by a subordinate clause does not get a comma. subordinate clause independent clause because The little dog shook with excitement because he was so excited.
Note: The second clause looks independent but the subordinating conjunction “because” makes it dependent or subordinate.
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4. An introductory clause usually gets a comma unless it’s one word or very short.
parmesan cheese, and lots of garlic; and fresh baked bread with roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and rosemary.
introductory clause , independent clause . According to meteorologists, this summer is one of the hottest on record.
6. Colons introduce a list, a specification, an illustration, or an extended quotation. independent clause : item, item, and item. Here is everything you need: pencils, paper, and a stapler.
5. Three common semi-colon uses: A semi-colon joins two independent clauses which are very closely related in meaning. ; independent clause . independent clause Blogging is a lot of fun; I wouldn’t want to do anything else. Note: It’s popular to use a dash in place of a semi-colon for extra emphasis—you can get creative! The semi-colon is also used, along with a comma, when a conjunctive adverb* precedes the second independent clause independent clause ; however, independent clause . Bloggers enjoy their work; however, there’s a lot to learn. *See resources on page 10 for additional conjunctive adverbs. In a list of items with one or more items containing commas, semi-colons are used to separate them. independent clause : item with commas; item with commas; and item with commas. She brought three platters to the party: sautéed mushrooms with anchovies, capers, and olives; pesto with pine nuts,
7. Use a comma to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses including the last item before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, etc.). independent clause item , item, and item. She just loved to eat watermelon, peaches, and pears in the summer.
Tip: In many newspapers or magazines that follow the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, you’ll see that a comma is not used before the coordinating conjunction. However, I prefer that comma—called an Oxford or serial comma—for clarity and in accordance with other style authorities such as the Modern Language Association (MLA). Example: In the following sentence, readers may visually group “grapes” with “macaroni” and then wonder what to do with the cheese (which goes with macaroni), and re-reading is necessary. They might also wonder what kind of dish is made with grapes and macaroni! Use a comma after “grapes.” She served sandwiches, grapes and macaroni and cheese for lunch.
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8. Parallelism: Make sure all items in a series are the same: all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, all adjectives, and so on. noun, noun, and noun / verb, verb, and verb / infinitive, infinitive, and infinitive Successful students have positive attitudes, good study habits, and effective time management skills.
Note: A common error is to use “they” in place of he or she. If “he or she” sounds awkward, especially if it’s repetitive, use only “he” or only “she,” and vary the usage throughout the writing. You can also consider changing the noun to third person plural, if possible, to agree with “they.” Friends (third person plural) should stay by your side in times of trouble if they (third person plural) are really your friends.
I didn’t like her, I didn’t love her, and I didn’t hate her; I didn’t even know her.
11. Restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers: Restrictive modifiers restrict the subject that is modified (described). They do not get a comma because they are too important to the meaning.
9. Subject-verb agreement: Verbs must agree with subjects in number and person.
The man who wore the dark jacket was the one who helped Susan.
Note: Be extra careful when the subject and verb are separated with other words.
When a modifier simply adds additional information, set it off with commas.
Robert, the guy who sits next to me and my friends, taps his foot during class.
The man, who wore a dark jacket, helped Susan.
Rebecca just loves to ski, to skate, and to swim.
Tip: “Who” is a subject; “whom” is an object.
A few positive-minded, inquisitive students in a class, even when the class is large, help to set the mood for learning.
“Who” is used as a subject like I, you, he, she, and it. “Whom”
10. Pronouns should agree in person and number with the noun they refer to.
is an object like me, her, him, us, and them. A subject is one who performs an action; an object is someone or something that receives action. Try replacing “whom” with “him.” If it works, then use whom. To whom/who should I send this? Should I send it to him? Whom is correct..
A friend (third person singular) should stay by your side in times of trouble if he or she (third person singular) is really your friend.
By the way, I rarely use “whom.” I think it’s headed for the history books.
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Part Three: Additional Tips Take a break, if possible, in between writing and proofreading, even if it’s only for a few hours. A few days is even better.
Try reading your blog post, newsletter article, research paper, or staff update backwards, sentence by sentence or section by section. It might help your concentration.
Pay close attention. Learn to monitor yourself so you can tell when your attention is drifting. If you drift, go back over that sentence or take a break.
Take the time to look up potential problems and things you aren’t sure of. I check technology terms all the time because they change or new ones are created. Infrequently-used hyphenated words should also be checked occasionally, to see if hyphens are no longer used. For example, email used to be e-mail or E-mail.
Don’t rely on spell check—in any form. Spell check only tells you whether a word is in that particular dictionary, not if it’s the correct word. “Their form he Untied stats,” for example, doesn’t give spell check any problem, but it doesn’t look good to me. If you’re puzzled, it should be “They’re from the United States.” Spell check gives you a head start if you make a lot of typos from fast or careless typing, but that’s about it.
If a topic is emotionally loaded for you, it may be difficult to write about it, edit it, or proofread it—at best it will be hard to remain objective or professional. Avoid topics that push your buttons, if you can. If you can’t, be aware that emotions can cloud judgment. Ask a friend to look it over.
Don’t rely on grammar check either. Grammar check can give you some tips, but it’s better to just learn the rules.
A compound modifier usually gets a hyphen. If the same two words occur after the noun, they typically don’t get a hyphen. Compare “that well-respected gentleman” and “that gentleman is well respected.”
Pay special attention to words you’ve misused before. For me, when I’m writing fast, I often mix up its and it’s; too, to, and two; their, there, and they’re; and a few others. So I pay close attention to my “bugger” words. I consciously think: Do I mean ‘its’ possessive or ‘it is?’ Do I mean ‘they are’ or do I mean ‘their’ possessive?
British and American English spellings are equally correct. Canadian and Australian English typically follow British rules, as does English in many other countries, such as India. Language evolves, and what works for one group of people doesn’t work for another. See Helpful Resources for a list of common Canadian, British, and American spellings.
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Part Four: Helpful Resources (click for more information)
Style guides MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
Oxford Dictionaries Online (handy for American English or World English)
Associated Press Style Book
Chicago Manual of Style
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation
University of Minnesota Style Manual
Harvard System of Referencing Guide (British)
Purdue Online Writing Lab: General Writing Resources
The BBC News Style Guide (British) Wikipedia: Manual of Style
Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips The Economist Style Guide (British) Grammarbook.com Indiana University: Proofreading for Common Surface Errors: Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar The Special Case of Conjunctive Adverbs Difference Between British, Canadian, and American Spelling
For your reading pleasure Daily Blog Tips: Top 10 Misspelled Words in Blogs Oxford Dictionaries: Common Misspellings Choosing Between American and British Spellings as Standards for Written English
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Part Five: A Few More Words Got your Eagle Eye on yet? I hope you’ve found The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading helpful. And I hope you’ll refer to it as often as needed. If there were just one key thing I’d like you to remember, it’s this: there are as many different ways to proofread as there are writers, but all good proofreaders have one thing in common.
If you have any questions, please let me know. And if this little guide has helped you or if you have suggestions, I’d love to know that, too. Or just stop by to say hello. I’m on Twitter @LeahMcClellan (though my attendance is usually spotty), so you might want to look me up on FaceBook, contact me from either of my blogs, or just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org I also offer very competitive rates if you need a second set of eyes for proofreading or expert copyediting. Ebooks, blog posts, business communications, research papers, dissertations—you name it. Email me to find out more!
Proofreading is not the same as regular reading. It’s a different kind of focus, and it requires a different kind of concentration. It’s almost like meditation. Have you ever tried to relax or fall asleep or meditate and unwelcome thoughts suddenly pop in out of nowhere? They’re like pesky flies or mosquitoes even if they’re fun or neutral thoughts. Then your mind gets quiet again or you’re almost asleep but suddenly, yet another—totally unrelated—thought jumps in just like the other one did. That happens while proofreading too (or any time when we’re trying to focus on something), but the difference is that you can’t entertain the thought. Instead, you’ve got to shake it out of your head and go back over the sentence or paragraph you were working on to make sure you gave each word and line your full attention. If you’re not used to focusing on the written word like this, never fear. Practice makes perfect. It also helps if you’re well rested and have a good chunk of time to work with.
email@example.com @LeahMcClellan leahmcclellan.com Peaceful Planet
Oh, and one last tip.
Tip: Have fun! Words are like building blocks, and proofreading is like polishing and making the final adjustments to your castle—your writing—so it stands tall, strong, and proud. Kick back, relax, and enjoy.
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5. Three common semi-colon uses: A semi-colon joins two independent clauses which are very closely related in meaning.
1. Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction get a comma.
independent clause independent clause , and independent clause . Jessica liked to have a big breakfast, but she usually skipped lunch (remember: and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but).
Blogging is a lot of fun; I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
independent clause ; however, independent clause . Bloggers enjoy their work; however, there’s a lot to learn.
In a list of items with one or more items containing commas, semi-colons are used to separate them.
3. An independent clause followed by a subordinate clause does not get a comma. independent clause because subordinate clause The little dog shook with excitement because he was so excited.
The semi-colon is also used, along with a comma, when a conjunctive adverb precedes the second independent clause
2. An independent clause followed by a dependent clause and joined by a coordinating conjunction does not get a comma. and dependent clause independent clause Jorge was a wild and crazy guy and also a devoted father.
4. An introductory clause usually gets a comma unless it’s one word or very short. introductory clause , independent clause . According to meteorologists, this summer is one of the hottest on record. Today we have access to better food than our grandparents did.
independent clause : item with commas; item with commas; and item with commas. She brought three platters to the party: sautéed mushrooms with anchovies, capers, and olives; pesto with pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and lots of garlic; and fresh baked bread with roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and rosemary. 6. Colons introduce a list, a specification, an illustration, or an extended quotation. independent clause : item, item, and item. Here is everything you need: pencils, paper, and a stapler.
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7. Use a comma to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses including the last item before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, etc.). independent clause item, item, and item . She just loved to eat watermelon, peaches, and pears in the summer. 8. Parallelism: Make sure all items in a series are the same: all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, all adjectives, and so on. noun, noun, and noun / verb, verb, and verb / infinitive, infinitive, and infinitive Successful students have positive attitudes, good study habits, and effective time management skills.
10. Pronouns should agree in person and number with the noun they refer to. A friend (third person singular) should stay by your side in times of trouble if he or she (third person singular) is really your friend. Friends (third person plural) should stay by your side in times of trouble if they (third person plural) are really your friends. 11. Restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers: Restrictive modifiers restrict the subject that is modified (described). They do not get a comma because they are too important to the meaning. The man who wore the dark jacket was the one who helped Susan.
Rebecca just loves to ski, to skate, and to swim. I didn’t like her, I didn’t love her, and I didn’t hate her; I didn’t even know her.
When a modifier simply adds additional information, set it off with commas. The man, who wore a dark jacket, helped Susan.
9. Subject-verb agreement: Verbs must agree with subjects in number and person. Robert, the guy who sits next to me and my friends, taps his foot during class. A few positive-minded, inquisitive students in a class help to set the mood for learning.
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