Skip to Main Content

Academic Writing: Proofreading


It is important to define Proofreading, as it is different to Editing work. Proofreading is about written language and means that if done correctly you should have an error-free piece of work. It entails identifying problems to do with spelling, grammar, and punctuation. 

Why should you proofread? You do not want to throw away marks. Errors will distract the reader from the content and flow. An assignment that has been proofread and edited can show that the creator has taken the time to present their work in a professional manner. See the Proofreading box below for tips and strategies

You should proofread for?  Grammar, Punctuation, Spelling and Usage, Capitalization, Numbers, Sentence Structure and Referencing. See Grammar and Punctuation box below for help with this.

Tips to aid proofreading:

  • Always start your assignment with a plan
  • Word processing your work makes the whole process easier to handle and saves time when adding, editing and proofreading
  • Try and allow a day or two to pass before attempting to proofread, as you are more likely to read what is there then, than if you tried to proofread straight after writing. See Time Management to help you with this.
  • Print out your work, as it is harder to see the overall look of your work on a screen
  • It is far easier to check each page for one thing at a time than to look for many things at the same time (go to proofreading strategies tab above)

Strategies to aid Proofreading

Until you are confident in proofreading it is a good idea to break down what you are looking for and specifically look for one thing at a time. A good way to keep track of what you are checking for and if you have proofread your work is to create a checklist.


  • To help make a Checklist of known errors and specific things you want to check for. This should include punctuation and grammar, spelling and usage, the use of capital letters, written numbers, sentence structure and references are written correctly and consistently.  If you don't know where to start then looking back at past assignment feedback might help you, for example: it might say 'Referencing issues' then you need to check how you have written your in-text references and your reference list against either the online referencing help on the Referencing Guide or the Cite Them Right book available in the library. You could also contact your Academic Skills Advisor who can look at a few pages of your work and help you start a checklist or teach you how to use one of the reading tools below.

Reading your work

Read your work slowly out loud, and using your finger or a ruler to keep track. If you do not easily recognise your own mistakes when you read your work out loud then you could use computer software that reads it for you, for example, Texthelp Read/Write or 'Speak' in MS Word please see below.

You should try to read for specific things like:

  • To check that sentences make sense: - take one sentence and read it out loud and ask yourself  does this make sense? Do I understand what it all means? 'What is it really saying?' Remember that the common word order of a simple sentence written in English is Subject-Verb-Object' and for further guidance see the Grammar & Punctuation section.  
  • When checking spellings do not rely on the computer spell checker, as this will not pick up similar spelt words or confusable words like there and their. If you know that you spell a specific word incorrectly sometimes then check all these word's, for example, college and collage. You could also use the Confusable Words tab in Texthelp ReadWrite software to highlight all confusable words. See Texthelp manual below.
  • You should be precise to whom or what you are writing about and avoid ambiguity. Ambiguity - 'multiple meaning' put simple, a word or sentence that can be understood or interpreted in more than one way. 

Reading Tools

  • If your work is saved as a pdf document then you could use the PDF Aloud tool to read it to you.See PDF Aloud guide below.
  • If you have created your work in MS Word using Office 2010 or later then you can use the 'Speak' button on your Quick Access Toolbar to have your work read to you. See the Quick Access Toolbar guide below.
  • If you are at University of Suffolk, then you can use the text-to-speak software Texthelp ReadWrite that is available on all the computers.This text-to-speak software will run over anything that you have up on your screen so not just useful for proofreading. For example, web pages, ebooks, email, and presentations. A beginners guide to using Texthelp is available below and each tab on the toolbar has a tutorial video available on YouTube. Your Academic Skills Adviser can also teach you how to use this software during a one to one session or group or your whole course. We also run regular workshops in Learning Service on using Texthelp ReadWrite so look out for on the workshop page.

We have created a Proofreading activity which will teach you how to identify and correct common errors that you will encounter when you are proofreading.

The entire tutorial should take you about 30 minutes to complete.

Why does Grammar and Punctuation Matter?


This essay needs proof reading badly… 

For one thing, assignment briefs, across all areas, will very often include accuracy of expression as one of the assessment criteria. That being the case, it would be foolish to lose marks and miss out on the higher grades simply because you haven’t expressed yourself or proof read sufficiently carefully.  Academic Skills Advisors will be able to help you to identify specific issues with your writing, and to see any typical patterns of errors to watch out for.  The important thing here is to understand not only  what  is wrong but  why  it is wrong.

If English is not your first language, or if you are an international student, there are workshops available which you should attend, and an advisor (Mark Illman) with expertise in this area.  If you are aware that you have particular problems with grammar or punctuation, you should certainly take advantage of the help that is available, especially if you are at the beginning of your course, so that you can maximise your potential and really succeed on your course.

The other, crucial, reason why they matter is that errors of grammar and punctuation can and do interfere with meaning, making it difficult (or at worst impossible!) for the reader to understand what you want to say. Sometimes it may just be a case of re-jigging the word order to remove ambiguity  (This essay is badly in need of proof reading...)   Like it or not, a very large part of the assessment on most courses is based on the quality and accuracy of your writing.  If your writing is clear, unambiguous and fluently expressed it does make a huge difference.  The reader is that much more likely to feel confident about what you are telling them.  

In most cases,  Clear writing = Clear thinking   To put it the other way round, if the writing is confused, it gives the impression that the thinking behind it is too.  Grammar and punctuation are closely connected, as we will see, because both have to do with the correct construction of sentences.        



According to the extremely handy and concise  Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation   by John Seely, grammar can be defined as the rules by which words are changed and ordered to form sentences.”  It sets out “rules which should be followed if you wish to speak or write ‘correct’ or ‘good’ English.”  One of the basic requirements of academic English is that it is grammatically correct.  If you are aware of problems with grammar in your writing, or if your tutors have drawn attention to this in their feedback, then you will need to take steps to address this. There is plenty of help available.  You can make an appointment to see one of the academic skills advisors and/or attend the workshops for international students. In addition, it would be a very good idea to get and work through a book such as

Harrison,J, Jakeman,V, and Paterson,K, (2012)  Improve Your Grammar, London, Palgrave.

This is a particularly useful and accessible book, specifically tailored to students in HE, with clear explanations and exercises on key areas of difficulty.  It covers not only grammar, but also punctuation, spelling and vocabulary, as well as how to incorporate and introduce quotations, definitions and data, and generally how to develop arguments in academic essays.

Another fundamental requirement of academic writing is that you are familiar with and able to accurately use the appropriate academic vocabulary.  Every subject has its own terminology, of course, but in addition there is a more generic academic vocabulary that you should be familiar with   (for example, knowing the difference between  infer and imply; subjective and objective; quote and quotation; elicit and illicit... )  It can seem like a foreign language if you are not used to it.    An excellent and easy to use book that will enable you to practise and build up your proficiency in this area is

Porter, D.  Check your Vocabulary for Academic English, 3rd edition (2007), London, A&C Black.


The first thing to say is that this will vary from person to person – just as we all have different strengths, we all equally have different areas in which we need to improve. That’s why it is important to be aware of (and record) your own particular pattern of errors. Grammar is a large subject, so the more specific you can be about any difficulties you have, the better.  When you understand  what you are doing wrong  (and why)  then you can begin to do something about it.  In general terms it is important to remember two things :

  1. If you write long and complex sentences you are more likely to make grammatical mistakes, particularly with verb tenses and singular and plural agreement.Unless or until you are confident about your command of grammar it is probably better to write in  shorter sentences, of not more than 2 lines or so. There is no problem with this – it is good style actually.

  2. Spoken language is generally informal ; academic language on the other hand is nearly always  formal and impersonal.   What this means is, if you write as you speak, you are probably going to be using the wrong style or register. The impersonal “voice” means that you generally need to avoid using the pronoun “I” (unless you are engaged in reflective writing, in which case you can’t and shouldn’t avoid it).This in turn means that you need to be able to construct  passive sentences  eg “The underlying reasons will be identified and evaluated” rather than “I will identify and evaluate…” 


The correct use of  singular and plural  nouns and verbs   is undoubtedly one of the most common areas of difficulty.  There are 5 main problems to watch out for :


Verbs should agree with nouns  –  if the subject of a sentence is singular, so should the verb(s) be.  If the subject is plural, the verb(s) should be plural likewise.   Eg.

These problems are  not unusual.   (plural subject, plural verb)

The situation is now resolved.    (singular subject, singular verb)


Uncountable nouns usually have no final ’s’ and take a singular verb.    Eg.

This information/advice/evidence/research  is  useful  (not "are") 

The water/atmosphere/terrain  is contaminated


Don’t forget the ‘s’ at the end of 3rd person singular present tense verbs.   Eg.

The writer (singular)  explains/describes/discusses         

The narrator (singular) states/implies/emphasises .. 


If the subject is plural, you don’t need the ‘s’   Eg

The authors (plural)   explain/describe/discuss…

Many commentators (plural)  believe/consider/dispute


Two linked nouns should agree (plural noun form, plural verb)    Eg.

Both the similarities and the differences are  relevant.

The advantages and disadvantages of windfarms are under review.


Be careful not to confuse the singular and plural forms of these common verbs  -  has/have…is/are…do/does.    Again, the rule to remember is that    the verb must  agree with the subject,  in terms of number.  Look at the subject of the sentence, decide if it is singular or plural, and then choose the appropriate verb form.

Some other grammar related errors


  1. Incomplete sentences.  Every sentence has to have a subject (ie. who or what it is about), at least one verb (word denoting action) and it must make complete sense on its own.  If any of these ingredients are missing, it is not a proper sentence, so proof read carefully, sentence by sentence,  with this in mind!   

  2. Over complicated sentences.   It is all too common to come across sentences that are overly long and complex.  The problem here is that the meaning just  gets lost in the accumulation of information.  The solution is simple – divide! Shorter sentences are clearer, more easily digestible and can be more emphatic.

  3. Incorrect use of verb tenses.   For example, when you are citing authors or evidence that are still valid and current, the convention is to use the present tense.  For example,   “Nugent (2012) identifies four key priorities…”  When you are referring to a past source that was important at the time, you can use the past simple, eg.  “Piaget (1896-1980) identified four stages in child development.”   Missing off past tense ('ed') endings is another very common error, as is confusing continuous (ing) verb forms with simple forms -   live/living...think/thinking.  These kinds of mistakes may be related to your first language or dialect (see below) and if so, you need to proof read with this in mind.

  4. Wrong or missing word endings     As well as the missing verb endings mentioned above (ed/ing/s  etc) watch out for missing endings on other kinds of words as well, as in the following cases - 

    *   "ly" endings for adverbs    -     slow/slowly      bad/badly     gradual/gradually     usual/usually   

    *   "s" or "es"  or "ies" endings for plural nouns    -     result/results     enquire/enquiries     box/boxes     match/matches

    *   "er" or "est" endings for adjectives   -    close/closer/closest      few/fewer/fewest     easy/easier/easiest

  5. Countable/uncountable Nouns     Use "fewer" or "many" for nouns that can be counted  -  eg  fewer people, fewer cars, fewer problems, many countries, many items...

    Use "less" or "much" for nouns that cannot be counted  -  eg   less water, less pollution, less recognition, much opposition, much controversy...


Why?     The purpose of all punctuation is to add clarity to your writing and to guide the reader through it.   If it is missing or incorrectly used, the meaning will suffer. The following are some of the most common misunderstandings.


Commas   One of the most widespread (and serious) punctuation errors is to use a comma when you actually need a full stop.  This is sometimes known as the “comma splice” and can lead to sentences that are much too long, as well as being grammatically incorrect.  Look at this example :

Information technology has revolutionised modern life, it would be difficult to think of a workplace in which it was not used.

These are in fact two separate sentences and cannot be separated by a comma.  The rule of thumb here is “if it is possible to use a full stop, you shouldn’t use a comma.”  In the above example, there are 3 possible ways of correcting the mistake :

•    Make two separate sentences :
IT has revolutionised modern life.  It would be difficult to think of a workplace in which it was not used.

•    Use a linking word (conjunction) or phrase to make one correct sentence :
IT has revolutionised modern life, and it would be difficult to think of a workplace in which it was not used.

•    Link the two sentences with a semi-colon :
IT has revolutionised modern life; it would be difficult to think of a workplace in which it was not used.

Of course, in order to decide whether something is a sentence or not, you have to be clear about what a sentence is.   A sentence has to have a subject and a verb and it has to make complete sense on its own  “Jimmy lost his keys”  for example meets all 3 requirements – subject (Jimmy),  verb (lost) plus the statement is complete and meaningful.   Don’t be afraid of having short sentences occasionally –  variety  is the key to good style, so you should aim to have a mixture of simple and more complex sentences.




Colons and semi-colons

Misuse or confusion of these two is another very common error. Colons  are easy.  Essentially they are used to introduce something, usually - 

• A list  -   I wrote down everything I needed: nails, screws, glue, string and wire.
• A quotation  -  Lady Macbeth replies: “Give me the daggers” 
• An explanation of something already mentioned -  There is one thing I will not tolerate: dishonesty.


Semi colons   sometimes cause confusion. They have two distinct uses.

• To link two complete sentences where the second one continues a point made in the first and where there is a strong connection between the two statements, each of which could be a sentence on its own.   Eg

Chess is a game of skill; patience is a game of chance.

• Between long phrases in a list, ie. where each item in the list is not just one word, but several.  Eg

The investigation revealed several key problems : serious air pollution; underfunding by central government; lack of public awareness and the decline of local transport services.

This example shows the difference between the colon, to introduce the list, and the semi-colon.  Again, as with sentence length, good style involves  variety  – your writing should demonstrate your ability to use the whole range of punctuation.

Of the remaining punctuation marks, the apostrophe is probably the one most frequently misused.  They shouldn’t be used indiscriminately just because there is an “s” at the end of a word – there are rules!   Apostrophes are used either to show possession or to show omission/abbreviation.  

• Possession/belonging    The rule is that if the subject is singular, the apostrophe goes before the “s”;   if the subject is plural, it goes after the “s”.    So, for example –

The student’s notes were on the table    =  ONE student
The students’ notes were on the table    =  TWO or more students.

The tree’s leaves  =  ONE tree
The trees’ leaves  =  TWO or more trees
• Omission/Abbreviation    The rule here is that the apostrophe shows that a letter or letters have been missed out for the sake of abbreviation.  Eg

I’ve remembered/they’re late/she’s mad/it’s raining/we couldn’t/he’ll be sorry

Remember though – in academic writing these contractions should be avoided – the convention is to write out the full version.  Remember also that the possessive pronouns (hers, ours, yours, theirs)  never have an apostrophe.     Make sure too that you know the difference between who’s/whose, eg  -

Who’s going to make the dinner   (ie who is)
Whose coat is this?  Or  -  A man whose skill is legendary  (ie  not “who is”, but showing belonging)

Recommended Resources

Familiarity with academic vocabulary and the conventions of academic writing can be a problem not only for international students but also for home students who are new to this kind of study, in Higher Education.  The same is true of grammar and punctuation.   All of the books below are excellent and provide systematic, purpose built guidance and practice for students at university level - a very sound investment that can really make a difference to the quality of your writing.


Bailey, S. (2011) Academic Writing : A Handbook for International Students, 3rd edition,  Abingdon, Routledge.

Copus, J. (2009)  Brilliant Writing Tips for Students, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Harrison,J, Jakeman,V, and Paterson,K, (2012) Improve Your Grammar, London, Palgrave.

McCarthy, M  and O'Dell, F. (2008)  Academic Vocabulary in Use, Cambridge, CUP.

Porter, D. (2007)  Check Your Vocabulary for Academic English, 3rd edition, London, A7C Black.


Support for speakers of other languages

If English is not your first language, there may well be other problem areas, some of which may arise from your first language, and its own distinctive grammar and syntax (sentence construction).  These problems commonly include word order; the sequence and formation of tenses ; the use of articles (a/an/the) and prepositions (to, from, by, at, up, down, in, on etc) as well as phrasal verbs (turn up, turn down, turn round, turn into etc)    Workshops, resources and one to one support are available, through Learning services, for international or bi-lingual learners.  Be sure to take advantage of these from the beginning of your course – it could make all the difference!  

Add the links here
Add links here.
Add links here.

1:1 bookable appointments can be made with your Academic Skills Advisers for your subject area.

Students from Ipswich can book two appointments per week (if you are a student from the Learning Network, please contact your library) - 

  • up to 1 hour with an Academic Skills Advisor

Appointments are scheduled in 30 minute slots.  

Schedule an Appointment