Why Punctuation in Court Reporting Matters More than Grammar
We’ve got a fantastic guest post for you today. PA grad Sam Moller spent over six years as an editor in New York City. She has a degree in English and was blown away by the differences between proofreading/editing books and proofreading transcripts. In many cases, she found grammar unimportant when proofreading transcripts.
But for those new to the industry, this concept can be hard to grasp.
When speaking with prospective new students, I very often have to explain that being “really good at grammar” really doesn’t matter.
I also have to explain that simply taking a grammar course at a community college won’t make you good at proofreading transcripts.
Sam’s words perfectly explain why.
Proofreading transcripts is not what you might expect — those who live by the red pen are going to get a new education.
So you’ve stumbled across Proofread Anywhere… and you love it because it speaks directly to one of your primary strengths: words.
Yes, you have Eagle Eyes! You’re one of us. You cringe every time you walk by that “stationary” store selling high-end paper and cards. “Don’t sign makers check for that stuff?” It vexes and puzzles you every single time.
Although it draws on the same core ability to spot errors, proofreading a transcript is way, way different from copyediting — and we’re about to look at why.
Fellow Sufferers of Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome – Take Heart!
I worked as a copyeditor in New York in educational publishing for six years. I considered myself to be an experienced, competent copyeditor, and yet I found Transcript Proofreading: Theory and Practice™ quite a challenge. The training for transcript proofreading — and English for court reporters in general — sometimes contradicts the training we get as editors. Even unlearning the scribbled editorial markings in favor of iAnnotate stamps will take practice.
The biggest difference, however, is that between written and verbal communication.
English grammar is imperfect and varied, but at least it strives to be exact.
On the other hand, spoken English is unapologetically patois, pidgin, and slang-ish. Speakers routinely change thoughts midstream, misspeak, and court reporters can mishear. There’s a lot of fuzzy gray area to consider that will make a pedant wince.
Here’s the thing: court reporters aren’t composing an essay or a book. They record actual, spoken language in the form of conversations within legal proceedings, such as jury selections, depositions, hearings, or case management conferences. What people say and how they write are usually very different. The same rules don’t — can’t — apply to verbatim records and planned, by-the-book writing.
When I started the course, I was surprised to be drawing on my other previous work as a playwright and screenwriter much more than copyediting. The ability to hear speakers and parse the cadence of language is a different skill from catching bad grammar. A typical English major can likely do sentence diagramming in their sleep, but they may be terrible at writing dialogue. And this isn’t dialogue as written by Tom Stoppard; this is a layperson’s impromptu and meandering responses in a stressful setting. You may be great at catching typical writing errors, but court reporters’ transcripts are not writing — they’re more like inefficiently staged plays.
People say lots of things that are not grammatically correct. It is your job as a proofreader to make their meaning clear without changing what they said. Just as court reporters can’t force speakers to use proper grammar, proofreaders can’t either. With transcripts, punctuation in court reporting is much more important than grammar. If someone says, “You is one good attorney,” you cannot change it to “you are” — even if you really, really want to.
It should be no surprise, but the drama of reading transcripts is a major appeal of the job for me. It’s dramatic and entertaining and sometimes heartbreaking. Once you unlearn your Good Grammar training, you will also find this work rewarding and interesting. Keep at it.
[Note from Caitlin: To help students “unlearn” grammar, we use and highly recommend Margie Wakeman Wells’ textbook, Court Reporting: Bad Grammar/Good Punctuation.]
“House Style” Will Change With Every Client
House style is provided to the professional editor in the form of the publishing house’s “bible.” We learn the rules, and follow them religiously. I learned to spell it adviser for a particular company, even though it wasn’t my personal preference.
Similarly, in transcript proofreading, each court reporter has their own house style, and you are expected to follow it. You may get a court reporter who loves semicolons and the serial comma as much as you do. On the other hand, you may get hired by a court reporter who hates the serial comma, and you’ll have to bite your tongue. Unless it’s a particular case that might cause a misunderstanding, mark it the way the court reporter prefers.
Always remember: your client is the court reporter. We may have strong preferences, but as the owner of a small business, it is our job to make our clients happy. As they learn to trust your judgment, you may be able to (gently) correct some of their bad habits (hey, we all have them), but you have to build that trust first.
It’s your job to run your small business, get new clients, keep them happy, and catch the errors that would make their transcript sloppy. Stay patient during the process of learning what “sloppy” means in this context. It will be worth learning this skill so you can have the freedom that comes with running your own business.
Everything is hard before it is easy.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Be Patient! The Learning Process Will Take Longer Than You Might Expect
Caitlin warns us, but some of us students have a hard time hearing it: be patient.
The process of working through practice transcripts is frustrating for the seasoned proofreader because we’re suddenly slow. We’re suddenly back to square one, learning and stumbling. Go slowly or you will miss things and prolong the learning process.
I personally found it helpful to create my own list of “things I missed” after every practice transcript. By PT12 of the 50, a pattern had emerged. For example, I had a tendency to miss the its/it’s error in spoken word. It was a weak spot. I didn’t let it get me down, though — knowing my weak spots means I can pay careful attention to them going forward and miss fewer errors with every subsequent transcript.
Moral of the Story? Stick With It
Learning is hard, especially when we think we know it all already. That weird, uncomfortable feeling you get when it’s not all black and white anymore does go away little by little as time goes on — I promise! Take your time on the practice transcripts. Let the new knowledge make its home in your brain. Let it take root. From that, your confidence will bloom.