Superheroes Among Us: The Secret Lives of Proofreaders



Ladies and Gentlemen, I am a superhero.

I didn’t always realize I was a superhero, but I’ve always known I was different. You see, I am a proofreader, compulsively and professionally.

“Ah,” you say, “but grammar is a learned skill not a superpower.”

Not so, my comma-missing friend. (I could hear in your voice that you would have left the comma out of your above statement.)

Some achieve grammatical competence, and most have a vague sense of editorial rightness thrust upon them. There are, however, few who are born great. Like spider webs issuing from our wrists or the power of flight, we are both gifted and cursed with the power of proofreading.

Most of us, like other superheroes, first discover our powers in troubling and traumatic ways. Consider the ordinary-looking child who sits down at a diner with his family. Picking up the grimy menu, he encounters the phrase, “Mashed Potatoe’s.” He is pained! He is incensed! As quickly as he can, he looks around the table to share this moment of affront with his family members, but they are unmoved. Not one of them has even noticed! With utter horror, he realizes how alone he is in this vast and grammatically-challenged universe.

As we grow, we learn to blend in and even, perhaps, earn financial compensation by using our power in small and inconspicuous ways. Like other minorities, however, we continue to be subject to tragic levels of discrimination and exploitation.

Consider our representation in the media. “The Foreigner,” a play that takes as its subject prejudice in the American South, does an admirable job of illuminating racial issues. At the same time, its hypocrisy is unnerving. Its protagonist, a man by the name of Charlie, is the professional proofreader of a science fiction magazine. With utter callousness toward the misunderstood heroism of the proofreaders that walk our streets, he is portrayed as shy, quiet, even, dare I say it, unadventurous! I know, it’s nearly too offensive to be repeated on paper, but we must be made aware of these things if we are ever to progress in the treatment of the persecuted in our society.

Exploitation is an even bigger issue, for it is one that is a daily struggle for all who possess the power to proofread. Consider this anecdote, occurring in the life of an ordinary college freshman. “Jane,” says Natalie, “could you proofread this paper really quick? I have to turn it in fifteen minutes from now.” No, Natalie, you do not understand. Proofread this paper really quick(ly) is what happens when a proofreader edits something for another of her own kind and feels shy about handing it back with the one correction it required, a correction that is probably, really, a matter of opinion. Editing for the ordinary writer is a painstaking, agonizing process in which the proofreader must commune with her inner soul about whether or not clauses are dependant, whether Strunk or Turabian is the true authority, and whether she can bear to leave slight mistakes if they seem intrinsic to the writer’s personal style. It is akin to Sisyphus’s daily journey, a valiant effort that is both grueling and time-consuming. At the very least, Natalie, offer Jane a chocolate bar.

Of course, superheroes also have their special joys. Superman orbits the earth in graceful arcs, and Thor makes mountains shake with Mjolnir’s thunder. We, too, have pleasures that will never be enjoyed by mere mortals. The moment of ecstasy that comes when we turn off “Tracked Changes” and suddenly find a pristine document where disorder and superfluous semicolons once reigned is beyond human description. It is sublime.

Some mutants fly; others read minds; others know exactly when to use affect or effect. All are united in an existence at once beautiful and tragic, exhilarating and excruciating. Proofreaders are often unappreciated superheroes, laboring in silent anonymity for the sake of a future world in which no plurals are accidental possessives and no run-on sentences live to mar the course of human development. It is, you say, only an dream. We agree, but you should have said “a.”


Please Note: This essay is very, very, very serious and should be taken as such.