When it comes to expressing yourself in writing, it’s important to choose exactly the right words to convey information and to communicate your thoughts and opinions. That’s the case whatever you’re working on, whether it’s school reports, emails to colleagues, or even teaching materials for students.
But it can sometimes be tricky to decide between two closely related words whose meanings are similar, though not quite the same. And sometimes choosing one instead of the other can change the meaning of the whole sentence.
Here are some word pairs that sometimes cause this type of difficulty. They’re all ones we’ve come across when proofreading school reports (and other material), although the examples we’ve included here are invented ones to illustrate the different meanings.
All the quoted definitions are from the Oxford Dictionaries website.
Simple and simplistic
Disinterested and uninterested
Historic and historical
Continuous and continual
The difference between these two is quite subtle, and in many cases using one instead of the other probably wouldn’t change the meaning drastically.
Purposely and purposefully
Alternately and alternatively
Biannual and biennial
These two words have very specific meanings. It’s important to choose the right one to describe what’s going on, whether you’re talking about batches of school reports, the organisational planning process, or a whole-school musical extravaganza!
We offered some tips on checking for mistyped words – those that your spellchecker won’t pick up – in another article. Why not add the pairs we’ve looked at here to your checking process too?
One of the issues that crops up regularly in school reports – and something that is sure to annoy parents – is the appearance of the wrong name, or an incorrectly spelled name.
When teachers are writing a large number of student reports under pressure of time, it’s inevitable that mistakes will happen, especially if standard phrases are being repeated in different students’ reports. I’m sure this isn’t just a ‘cut and paste’ issue either – even back in the days of hand-written reports, it would have been almost impossible to guarantee 100% accuracy and consistency in names and their spellings.
The most obvious problem occurs when a student’s report contains another student’s name, and perhaps not even a student of the same gender. But there are other issues that need to be considered, even if the correct name is used:
These issues can be difficult to spot. Teachers working on a stack of reports to a tight deadline might not notice a ‘Julia’ in Tom’s Chemistry report. They might not check whether Tom should really be ‘Thomas’. They might not wonder whether all the other teachers used Tom’s full name (or even ‘Tommy’). And they probably won’t have the chance to read their colleagues’ reports for each student, so it’ll be more difficult to identify inconsistencies.
Someone reading all the subject reports for each student will have a better chance of seeing inconsistencies. For a start, they’re more likely to notice if the wrong name has been used. Different spellings of a student’s name will be easier to spot. And checking for shortened forms or other variants will be more straightforward.
Depending on the format of the reports – whether, for example, they’re being read on screen, in a particular software package or on paper – the only way to reduce the number of errors and inconsistencies may be to proofread very carefully. The more pairs of eyes that look at the reports, the less likely it is that errors in students’ names will slip through the net. It’s certainly useful to be aware of the types of things you need to be looking out for, and I hope the examples above will help.
If it’s possible to view the reports in Microsoft Word (even if it means exporting them from another platform), there are some useful techniques that can be used to check for consistency. Here are a couple of tools we’ve found useful:
But there’s no substitute for careful proofreading, alongside a style guide that sets out the school’s approach to student names. It’s the best way of ensuring that everything’s correct, from Amelia, Amelie and Amalia right through to Zachary, Zachariah and Zack.
Who proofreads the student reports in your school? As a teacher, do you need to check reports you’ve written yourself? Or are you in charge of proofreading all the reports for a form or year group?
If the reports are in a suitable format (including Word and Excel), it’s a good idea to run a spellcheck to make sure there are no typos in the reports before they’re sent out. But there are some mistakes that spellcheck won’t be able to find. This happens when you accidentally type another word that’s also in the dictionary.
For example, if you meant to type ‘from’, spellcheck will underline ‘fomr’ but it won’t pick up on ‘form’, because form is a valid word. You might notice the error as you’re reading through, but if you’re checking a whole set of fairly similar teacher comments, you could easily miss it: your brain wants you to see the word that you expect to see, not the one that’s really there.
So, what can you do to catch those kinds of momentary slips?
One way to pick up on these mistakes is to use the ‘Find’ tool in Microsoft Word. Before you start reading the reports, search for words that you know are often mistyped, such as those containing very similar letters. Then you can check each instance to make sure the right word has been used for each context.
Here are some of the mistyped pairs that we’ve often found when checking school reports for School Proof. You could use this checklist as a start and add any others you find as you go along.
In this first list, the word on the right is usually correct in school reports. (Check each context carefully, though – for example, the RS teacher won’t be talking about Jesus and his disciplines!)
And here are some pairs where either word may be correct, depending on the context.
Make sure you search for each word in each pair, because which one is right will depend on the context. You could also search for acronyms that are often mistyped, such as ‘GSCE’ instead of ‘GCSE’ – spellcheck won’t pick up on these unless you add them to the dictionary.
Speeding up the checks
Laura Ripper, School Proof
Is it reasonable to expect a teacher’s written English to be faultless?
Many people seem to expect teachers to be able to send home reports without making a single mistake – but they wouldn’t bat an eyelid if a best-selling author had their book copy-edited or a professional copywriter had their website text proofread. Why is this?
Perhaps it’s because school reports are so highly valued – what a teacher writes about how a child is doing at school makes a lasting impression on the family, and the reports are often kept for many years. For some, the quality of the report reflects the quality of the education that the school provides. A carefully written report, free from mistakes, sets a good example to students too.
But every writer makes ‘slips of the pen’ with grammar, spelling and punctuation – best-selling authors, proofreaders (especially in emails to important clients) and, yes, teachers.
So how can a professional proofreader help?
Spotting typos any writer could miss
When you’re focusing on the overall gist of what you want to say, it’s difficult to concentrate on the detail. It’s easy to type ‘form’ instead of ‘from’ or ‘god’ instead of ‘good’. It’s just as common to miss out an article (for example, ‘Hannah is wonderful student’). Or Autocorrect might decide that you want to key in ‘defiantly’ instead of ‘definitely’. Copying a generic sentence from one report to another can lead to the wrong name or gender being used.
It’s normal for any writer to make these kinds of slips. Even if you have time to check your reports, you might not spot a mistake. That’s because your brain wants you to see what you think you’ve written, not what’s actually there. Spellcheck won’t pick up on these things, so they can easily end up in the final version.
A proofreader won’t have seen your reports before, so they won’t have any expectations about what you’ve written. That makes it easier for them to notice typos, repeated or missing words, and other mistakes that we all make when writing.
Language evolves, and the grammar ‘rules’ that were accepted a little while ago might now have changed or be thought of only as matters of style.
What’s more, a thorough knowledge of grammar isn’t what makes a brilliant art, maths, PE, IT or science teacher. Some teachers (for example, native speakers of languages taught) might speak English as a second language.
Just like many other professionals, teachers might confuse ‘practice’ (the noun) with ‘practise’ (the verb) or accidentally write ‘could of’ instead of ‘could have’.
A professional proofreader deals with usage points every day as part of their job, so they’re in an ideal position to pick up on anything that doesn’t sound natural.
In secondary-school reports, subject teachers usually write different sections of the same student’s report. Even if all the teachers have perfect English, that can lead to inconsistencies.
For example, in UK English, if one teacher writes that a student is very ‘organised’ and another writes that the student is ‘organized’, neither teacher is wrong – it’s a style choice. But to the person reading the whole report, these variations can look like mistakes.
Some schools like to be consistent about certain style choices – for example, whether or not to capitalise subject names, use abbreviations, allow contractions, use students’ pet names or use ‘-ise’ or ‘-ize’ endings.
Professional proofreaders can help by ironing out these kinds of inconsistencies, keeping to the school’s style preferences across all the reports. Using software – as well as a trained human eye – makes this process as accurate and speedy as possible, meaning it’s cost-effective for the school.
Checking the meaning is clear
When you’re pushed for time, it’s more difficult to check that what you’ve written is clear enough for parents and students to understand. Sometimes, because you know what you intended to say, you won’t notice that a sentence is ambiguous. The length of a sentence can get out of hand too, making it harder for the reader to follow your train of thought.
Added to that, it’s easy to use jargon and abbreviations that parents might not be familiar with.
Professional proofreaders are trained to spot these issues and correct them, suggest an alternative or write a query so you can put it right. All this helps to make sure that your writing expresses what you want to say and to avoid any misunderstandings between teachers and parents.
Proofreaders can also point out any contradictions between teachers’ comments, along with any language that doesn’t set the tone your school prefers (for example, colloquial expressions or language that could be misconstrued).
Saving you time
Teachers often have to write numerous reports in a short space of time. Because the reports have to be up to date, you can’t take weeks to write and then check them. So, as mentioned in this article in the Times Educational Supplement, reports are ‘often written as rush-jobs, late into the night, by teachers with other things on their minds’.
Sending the reports off to a professional proofreader can free up teachers and other staff to do the work that they do best. That means fewer members of staff have to spend time checking the reports. Often, the reports can be checked more quickly too, as a result of greater efficiency.
All this means teachers can spend the limited time they’ve set aside for writing reports on what matters most: telling parents about how their children are doing at school.
The checks that a professional proofreader is trained to do all help schools make sure that good-quality reports are sent home, creating a good impression and building the school’s reputation.
Your chosen proofreader is there to provide support, checking your reports with thought and care so you can feel confident when they go out. That frees you up to focus on what’s most important – teaching!
If you’d like to find out more about working with a proofreader, please feel free to contact us.
Helen Stevens, School Proof
Many editors and proofreaders work alone and enjoy doing so. That’s certainly been my personal experience. Yes, I enjoy liaising with clients and colleagues – whether online or in person – but I’m perfectly happy working on my own, focusing on a piece of work for a specific client.
When it comes to proofreading school reports, though, I relish the opportunity to work closely with a colleague – SfEP Advanced Professional Member Laura Ripper – through our dedicated proofreading service, School Proof.
The partnership came about a couple of years ago when I began proofreading student reports for a school. The work was very enjoyable, but the deadlines were tight (and non-negotiable). The summer report schedule was particularly demanding, and I realised in advance that it would be difficult to fulfil it on my own.
Fortunately, Laura was willing to take on some of the school proofreading. And the rest, as they say, is History (plus Geography, French and Computer Studies).
I needed someone who was highly competent, and who could grasp the system I’d already set up (including dealing with the fact that the text was supplied in Excel). Laura came on board, quickly picked up what was required, and took to it like a duck to water. She also made some excellent suggestions on how we could improve our working methods, something that I really appreciated.
Laura and I were able to share the reports throughout the year, including the busy summer period. We developed a number of clean-up routines that we carry out before and after proofreading, using find and replace, spellcheck and tools such as PerfectIt (consistency-checking software) and macros. We focus on style points such as initial capitals on subject names, punctuation preferences and the names of extra-curricular clubs and activities. We look out for commonly confused words (flare/flair, practice/practise, rigor/rigour). We check the spelling of student names and make sure the full name is used (the school style is for no nicknames or shortened forms). And during the proofreading itself we check the usual things – spelling, grammar, punctuation – but query anything that seems amiss.
Together we keep the style sheet up to date and customise PerfectIt to meet our proofreading requirements. When working on the reports we email each other throughout the day to discuss style points, and sometimes to alert one another to specific recurring errors in a particular set of reports. It’s good to be able to make joint decisions and to keep each other up to date with progress.
This working arrangement has been so successful that Laura and I decided to set up School Proof, a specialist proofreading service for student reports, alongside our own separate businesses.
All in all, it’s been a very positive experience. I’d give it 10 out of 10 – and long may it continue!