Proofing marks

Updated 13 June 2013 (formatting fixes, updated links)


  • Why are proofreaders important?
  • Origins
  • Communicate your changes without ambiguity
  • American proofreading symbols & abbreviations
  • UK proofing marks
  • Citation for this page


PROOFREADING is the reading and marking up corrections on a printer’s proof, paper printout, computer monitor or some other copy of the text or artwork.

In the printing and graphic-arts industries, proofreading specifically means the work of an employee (proofreader) of a printing press, typesetting firm, newspaper office or publishing house.

Proofreading is also a term of art in those industries whereby proofreading involves checking typeset material (such as film output) to a specified standard.

Proofreaders (sometimes called copyreaders in the American newspaper world) are expected to be (and generally are) consistently accurate by default because their work occupies the final stage of prepress production work before publication. (Wikipedia)


Find out by reading John Wilson’s The Importance of the Proof-reader: A Paper read before the Club of Odd Volumes, in Boston (The University Press, Cambridge, 1901).



The word proofreading itself only dates from 1930–35 by back formation from the word proofreader (as is also the case with editing from editor).

However, the work of proofreading dates from the earliest days of printing. The earliest case of proofreading (or ‘proofing’) as a separate activity from printing is a 1499 contract that held the author final responsibility for correction of proofs. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008)

In the early days of movable type and hot-metal typesetting, first proofs were made from a galley (a long tray, or flong, holding a column of type). Therefore these preliminary versions of publications or documents (galley proofs) are printed (‘run out’) for initial review and amendments (‘edits’) by authors, editors and proofreaders, often printed on larger-sized paper sheets (usually) or with extra-wide margins (less usually). Near-final versions (page proofs) have finalised pagination to help compiling the index.

Since the advent of photocomposition and electronic typesetting in the 1960s, uncorrected proof is the more common term for the first copy run out for checking purposes, and galley proofs and page proofs are nowadays roughly interchangeable terms.

(Image by Tomomarusan via Wikipedia)



To avoid misunderstanding or failure in communication, it is important that everyone works together with a common set of symbols. This page shows some of the more commonly used proofing marks.

The world is divided into using either British or American proofing marks. The two are different, but not radically so. Each side thinks their own is better; neither are. Use the system that your employer or target user prefers to use.

A blue/red pencil is traditionally used (often by an editor) to write corrections in written copy. The blue part (or an actual non-photo blue pencil) is especially used because the marks are non-reproducible in some reprographic processes and wouldn’t be ‘read’ by the reprographic cameras.

Red pencils are sometimes used for similar reasons because their pigment won’t reproduce in photocopying (specifically, xerography).

With the advent of electronic editing, literal blue pencils are rarely seen, but still exist in the metaphor to blue-pencil something used pejoratively to mean censorship.

Today, the commonest non-photo blue pens (sometimes mistakenly described as ‘photo blue’) are special blue-inked highlighters used for marking up typesetting film and photomechanical artwork, such as the Prismacolor Premier 3484. Be aware that not all blue highlighters are non-photo blue.

(Interestingly, the ‘blue pencil test/doctrine’ is a legal concept used by courts of tort law as a method for deciding whether a contractual obligation can be partially enforced, as set in the UK House of Lords case Nordenfelt v. Maxim, Nordenfelt & Ammunition Co. [1894] AC 535.)

(Image: Prismacolor Premier 3484 via Art Supply Warehouse)




American proofreading symbols & abbreviations

For the abbreviations (below), use a line or arrow to point to the relevant element and put the abbreviation in the margin.


(by Rongcheng Great Stationery Co., Ltd. via Made-in-China)


UK proofing marks

British Standard BS 5261 (Copy preparation and proof correction: recommendations for preparation of typescript copy for printing) was established in November 1975.

Perhaps not so well-known today, BS 5261 (most recent update in 2005) remains an excellent way of conveying your text changes to someone else with the least amount of ambiguity, whether you are editing words within your organisation or communicating with printers, designers and publishers. BS 5261 and related standards are available from the British Standards Institute.

The BS 5261 marks are in fact traditional proofing marks in use in the British printing industry for 500 years.

The international standard ISO 5776: 1983 (Graphic technology — Symbols for correction) is partially derived from BS 5261. It specifies 16 symbols for proofreading manuscripts, typescripts, printer’s proofs and the like. ISO 5776 excludes graphic-art symbols such as those used in photoengraving plants and symbols for correcting mathematical texts and colour illustrations.


Cite this page as:—

Lee, R.C. (2012). Proofing marks. Learn English or Starve (website). 30 July 2012. Last updated 27 May 2014.


© Learn English or Starve, 2012. Last updated 27 May 2014.

Charts of American and British proofing marks exclusively created by the author.

Created and first published 30 July 2012, UTC 17:12
Updated 31 July 2012
Updated 13 June 2013 (formatting fixes, updated links)
Updated 27 May 2014 (reformatted photo credits)

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