The Origin of Proofreading


What does the word ‘proofreading mean’?

Before tracing the origin of proofreading, it is helpful to consider what the word means. The word ‘proof’ is generally understood from a scientific aspect, such as proving a scientific law. However, in the publishing field, the word has another meaning. The word originates from the Latin probare, meaning to test or to prove. It is in this sense that proofreading applies to the publishing world. The proofreader performs the final check or test of a book or other publication before it is printed and distributed.

When was proofreading first used?

Until the invention of printing, all books and documents were handwritten, usually in beautiful script. This was a skilled and time-consuming task and great care was exercised not to make any mistakes, because it was difficult and sometimes impossible to correct errors. Such writings were known as manuscripts, which literally means ‘handwritten’ (from the Latin manu [by hand] and scriptus [written]). Although various simple types of printing had been used since very early times, it was not until the 15th century that books and documents were printed in large numbers. This changed everything. In Europe, this period was known as the Renaissance because for the first time, knowledge and information was more widely distributed. The fact that many more people were reading books meant that there was a greater likelihood of people spotting mistakes in these books; also printers were more likely to make mistakes than were those who wrote books by hand. The led to the birth of proofreading, where the printer would first print one page or one copy of a book or document and someone would check or ‘prove’ it so that it would be correct before it was published and distributed.

The development of publishing  

Over the next few centuries, publishing houses gradually developed and formulated certain procedures of ensuring that the work they publish is accurate and correct. Therefore, by the present time, the simple proofreading, which began in the 15th century, has become complex and now involves many different procedures. For this reason, ‘proofreading’ is often used as a generic term for every kind of checking procedure during the publishing of a book. At this point, it is helpful to clarify these procedures as they are applied in the publishing industry. The first step is for an author to write a book and then submit it to a publisher. If the publisher accepts it, the next person to enter the field is the copy-editor, whose job is to correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation and consistency as well as checking if the author has correctly followed the publisher’s house style. Some publishers employ their own copy-editors while others use external copy-editors. The corrected version is then sent to the typesetter who sets it according to the corrections the copy-editor has made. The typesetter then sends a printed version of this (the proof) to the author and to the proofreader.

The task of the proofreader

Proofreading is the final stage of the process, and it is the proofreader’s job to check the proof against the corrected manuscript that was originally sent to the typesetter. The proofreader is not meant to make any substantial changes, unless any obvious errors have crept in. After the proofreading process, the typesetter will print the book and the publisher will distribute it. The proofreader can be compared to a goalkeeper whose mistakes cannot be rectified later.

Proofreading today

With the advent of digital printing, there have been many changes in the publishing industry; for example, the copy-editor and the proofreader can sometimes be the same person, and the two procedures can be merged into one process. However, the basic principles remain the same. This article mainly concerns the publication of books and journals, but the copy-editing and proofreading processes also apply to academic and business writing, indeed to any kind of printed material in which it is more likely that the copy-editor and the proofreader are the same person. Academic or business writing may or may not be published; therefore, a publisher may not necessarily be involved. 

The Ultimate Proofreader is a proofreading services provider based in the UK.