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Why Punctuation in Court Reporting Matters More than Grammar

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.

Is grammar important? Why punctuation in court reporting matters more than grammar!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. Free yourself from grammar pedantry syndrome. Let the new knowledge make its home in your brain. Let it take root. From that, your confidence will bloom.

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  1. ” You cringe every time you walk by that “stationary” store selling high-end paper and cards. ”
    In all fairness, the store was not moving! 🙂

    1. I can’t! I just can’t even! I just read this comment and started laughing like a fool. My mom and dad and even my two year old looked at me funny. They didn’t get why it was so funny until i explained it.

  2. Oh my gosh!! Thank you sooooo much for this blog! Having worked for more years than I care to admit, I’ve been having a terrible time figuring out when to follow the “rules” in the practice transcripts and when not to. I feel like it’s taking me forever to complete them and I’m still confused even though I’m on #40! Your blog spoke to everything I’ve been dealing with! I feel like I never know when to highlight and question what the speaker said — especially since so many use poor English! Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing. You’ve given me the courage to believe that I can take the time I need and learn to be the great transcript proofreader I want to be!

    1. I have been feeling the same way, Candace! This blog has given me new hope and fresh energy to continue working through the transcripts. ?

  3. Caitlin, thank you for sharing Sam’s story and experience with having grammar gremlins.
    I want you to know how much I appreciate reading your comments. I have for most of my life edited the words of others in different types of business. Not all, including myself, speak using proper grammar. My superiors (were highly educated); however, this doesn’t make everyone a grammar whiz. I feel as though I’m using my patience and giving every effort to correct errors on the next PT.
    My heart seems to sink every time I read where a student enrolled and was working in less than two months. I’m very obsessive compulsive about my decisions. The gift of never being wrong is not one of my strong traits. Do your best the first time so you don’t have to waste time in rework.
    I have said all of this to thank Sam for your words of encouragement.

  4. I needed this today. As I have been particularly perturbed by the grammar and punctuation in Unit 8, I needed to read this. I am someone that likes to believe I am a quick study. This course has me questioning myself; however, I fully recognize that through the pain, struggle, and sometimes irritation, I will be better for it.

  5. This is an excellent post, Caitlin! I am slowly making my way through the practice transcripts, and I was struggling with those commas and such every time! It’s finally starting to click because I am finally starting to understand why you say it is an art! Your blog posts are always timed perfectly with what I am thinking about or struggling with.

  6. One of my frequent errors comes from growing up around native spanish speakers, and living and working with them now. The cadence of English spoken with a Spanish accent sounds normal to me….I have a hard time highlighting phrases for the CR to double check, as it sounds verbatim and “correct” to me. Then I see another person has marked it, and I think I’ve made a big mistake. Again. And again.
    I LOVE the idea of making a list of my misses, so I know what to pay special attention to …totally using that tip!

  7. Great post Sam, and many thanks for the encouragement. I too have a background in copy editing and proofreading but this is WAY different. I’ve only just started on the PTs and have to remember NOT to beat myself up because I think I should be better at this. I have some unlearning to do for sure!

  8. I just heard Yoda say, “You must UNLEARN what you have learned.” Just me? I needed to be reminded of the things in this column today too. Great idea to write down the errors you keep making. My eyes keep skipping over the spacing issues and the “keep together” issues. I’m guessing it’s because my background has me reading for content rather than for nitty gritty on those types of things. Oh, and by the way, who would have thought that the stinkin’ hyphen would become the absolute BANE OF MY EXISTENCE!!!!!! AARRRGGGHHHHH!!!!!!

    1. Oh my gosh!!!! I soooooo feel the same way! I have come to absolutely HATE hyphens!!! And I think my problems come from years of reading for content, too. I’m having an awful unlearning what I learned about 40 years ago!! I’m so glad so many of us are dealing with the same issues! So good to know it’s not just me!

  9. Caitlyn Pyle, I hope that you will consider incorporating this blog in the first module of your course. It would have been SOOOOO helpful to me to have read this before I started the PTs. Thanks for sharing!

      1. Thank you so much for adding it to Module 1! It’s so very helpful here, at the beginning, to know what sorts of old habits will need to be set aside to be successful.

  10. I’m just getting started on the full course, so this may be a “duh” question, but do you have a preferred dictionary you use? I bought a Merriam Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus just a couple days ago. I’m disappointed in it as a couple of the words I had questions on weren’t in this dictionary, yet when I went to the online Merriam’s they had them and their definition. I realize no one dictionary can have allll the words, but would like to be using one that is accurate most of the time. Thanks for any input.

    1. Hi, Jane!

      Merriam-Webster is the main authority in the court reporting world. Court reporters do use other dictionaries, but this one is the main source across the board. I recommend subscribing to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary. For whatever reason, the unabridged version has a lot more than the regular dictionary. Also, the online versions are updated more frequently than the other versions. Hope that helps! 🙂

      1. Yes, thanks. This is very helpful. At least I had the right dictionary name, now to subscribe to the online version and return the paperback one to the bookstore.

      2. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary has more words in it because it is the ‘unabridged’ version.

        ‘Unabridged’ meaning not cut or shortened; complete, whole, entire, full-length…

  11. Jane S
    I am also working on the training information that Caitlin has so wonderfully prepared for future proofreaders. I ordered The Gregg Reference Manual Tenth Edition from Amazon for one cent plus postage a total of $4.78. No regrets and has nearly any information we may need for the training. Best prepared reference book I have ever used. Comprehensive and easy to use. Worth the purchase. Best of luck. Hope to see our names in the pass circle of students. Carol S

    1. Hmmm. The times I’ve looked for the Gregg Reference Manual, it’s been listed at $35.00 as the lowest price. If I could find it for even $10 or $15 I’d go ahead and buy it. Sounds like I need to do some more looking. Thanks for the tip.

      LOL. I just went and re-looked and lo and behold, I found the one for $.01. Yay. It’s now been ordered. Discovered the more expensive one is the 11th edition and is much, much more expensive. Carol, thank you for the push to go look again. Hoping I’ll see your name in the “pass circle” as well. What an adventure this is, but oh so rewarding.

  12. How do you get customers’?? I live in the country, I have no neighbors. The nearest court house is 30 minutes away. Do you pick up the work, get it in the mail, or look at it on the computer?? What is a good price to proof read reports.

    1. Hi, Tami!

      Those are some excellent questions! While I can’t give out information on how and where to get clients to untrained proofreaders, I can definitely reassure you that all of this is covered at length in the course. All graduates are given access to the very thorough and comprehensive marketing module so they are well equipped to build their business. I can say, however, that your location has very little to do with your success. Most proofreaders work with reporters from all over the country, remotely. 🙂

  13. I’ve only just begun on the coursework and am so encouraged! I hope to be one of the “passed” in the near future! Mary S Richmond

  14. I read a lot of blogs about copyediting and proofreading, and this offering by Sam Moller is the first that has made me laugh aloud with delight. I was a court reporter for twelve years (and my Gregg was one of the very first editions). Many years later, I’m a copyeditor and proofreader. There is such a difference between verbatim and idealized discourse; and since leaving the court-reporting profession, I have truly missed the fun, challenge, and real-world drama of using ear, knowledge, common sense, and consistent punctuation to clearly convey exactly what was said.

    I’ve always loved plays and movies, and I completely agree with Sam’s connection between transcripts and other kinds of scripts. Court reporters—and their proofreaders—are in professions that are just as much aural as visual. To keep it true to the spoken word, you must hear it in your mind as well as see it on the page.

    Thanks for a great post that reminds me of the differences between proofreading for perfection and proofreading for verisimilitude.

  15. As a “newbie”, I really enjoyed reading this blog entry!

    In my former profession as a speech language pathologist, I was able to use my abilities in language, dialects and accents. Hearing the spoken word and making sense of what was trying to be conveyed has always been of interest to me. I’ve also enjoyed editing the written word, but now using both sight and hearing really speaks to me!

  16. “Fellow Sufferers of Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome – Take Heart!” These welcoming words have helped to soothe any remaining concerns I had on my first day of study about whether this was the right program for me. Thank you, Sam and Caitlin 🙂

    1. Oh, Caroline! From a former PA student (forever a student, really!), PA grad, working transcript proofreader, and PA Team member… welcome to your tribe! 🙂

  17. No doubt, as I go farther into the course, I will also have to unlearn the urge to correct grammatical errors!

  18. I have a long way to go in a short period. I should have waited to sign up for the course, but was anxious to get started. I am encouraged by the blog.

  19. Any time you learn something you read, recite out loud and review it. Take notes or make an outline of what you have studied. However, I like the stumbling part. I want to quite being scared of stumbling and read and connect the dots like a pro. As long, as i try….. Hmmmmmm. I think, I can.. I think, I can. LoL. People who have mastered something, talk so fast trying to teach it they don’t have time to slow down. So, I look forward to moving along in the slow lane.

    Kind Regards,

  20. English was my very worst subject in high school & college. Grammer & punctuation are just not my strong suit. I struggle with it all the time in everything I do. Would I be wasting my time taking the course because of this?

    1. The first part (Jumpstart) would not be a waste of time — it has helped a lot of people get so, so much better at grammar and punctuation (especially punctuation, which in my opinion is more important in today’s world :-)). Word skills are critically important in any type of working environment. I’d say take the first two modules and if you hate it or don’t think you’d enjoy further study to improve, don’t move on. The Word Skills Test at the end of Jumpstart is the belle of the ball and really helps students gauge their skills and likelihood for success. We’ve essentially built in a way to test yourself on a pretty high level — without making the full course commitment.

  21. Hi:
    Just starting the course. My one concern is that I am British, or was, now American. I have been here for over thirty years, but still finding myself spelling the Brit way at times. Adding a U in (colored – coloured) . I know that I will be fine, just start slowly.

    Karen Wilson

  22. Reading this article, I am reminded of my first day of journalism 101 (many years ago), when my professor told the class, “Take everything you’ve ever learned about writing, and throw it out the window!”

    I was shocked and thought I’d made a huge mistake, but I survived and I learned, and I’m ready to do it again!

  23. I really enjoyed this article. I am definitely one of those grammar-perfectionists, and I worried that it might affect (See; I even used the proper word there…) my ability to perform this type of proofreading. Also good for me to read because, much as I try not to, my brain keeps going, “I already have excellent grammar and spelling skills, and I already know medical and legal terminology. Why do I need this course?” This article helped me to quiet my brain, at least for the moment!

    1. I agree Abby, this was a wonderful article for me to read as well. I am right where you where when you posted this. Thanks to Sam and Proofreading anywhere for doing well and good with this post —

  24. Another “Wow!” from me. As a current freelance copyeditor myself, this post was exactly what I needed to read. Now I feel better prepared to resist the temptation to correct bad grammar in transcripts. Very good point about thinking of transcripts more as dialogue from a play than as text from a book. And it’s also good to know that there are other copyeditors like me out there who are making the transition to proofreading transcripts. Thank you, Sam! Thank you, Caitlyn!

  25. As a former CR student, I’m hopeful that might help as I begin this course. My biggest concern, has always been about learning new technology. I consider myself a dinosaur, in that capacity! Will anyone be able to help me with questions concerning this? Thanks so much, Dawn

    1. Hi, Dawn! The course has a lot of instruction on the technology you’ll use. Another AMAZING resource is the student community itself. The PA student Facebook page is a great place to get help of all kinds. It’s like a giant study group. 🙂

  26. I am interested in purchasing the textbook on bad grammar/good punctuation. It is quite expensive, and I’m wondering if any former student would be interested in selling a used copy. Anyone?

  27. I really like the idea that court transcripts are not writing, but inefficiently staged plays. I think that will be helpful to remember once I see my first transcript. I’m also saving the idea of noting what errors I miss so I can see if there’s a pattern. That seems really helpful, too!

  28. I can understand that while having to supresss my instinct to correct misspellings and the whys, pushing for punctuation is going to be enlightening for me. Like others in this group my antenna spot misspellings send a chill to my brain.This course will open my eyes too others. By the way autocorrect does damage!

  29. Thank you for a very entertaining and enlightening article. Gives a person a lot to think about. This being my first day, my mind is going a million miles an hour. But I will settle in and slow down so I can absorb.

  30. Thank, Sam! Comparing court transcripts to evolving drama scripts is a good analogy. I have to unlearn punctuation and re-learn both spelling and punctuation. That’s my challenge. And, thanks to Caitlin for sharing this essay with us.

  31. Hi there! I live in Asia. Is it possible for me to get work from this side of the world?

    1. Great question! We have many successful graduates who do not live in the United States. Hope this helps! 🙂

  32. This was a good and very helpful article. I look forward to exploring more on court reporting opportunities in my area.

  33. I am very impressed on the simple and to-the-point tips about the skills needed for a transcript proofreader.

    Thank you.

  34. Thank you for your insights and clear explanation. I’ve been worried about pursuing this because my background is in creative writing and not grammar or traditional English/Language Arts. While I’m going to need to work at the lessons, it’s nice to think that my natural inclinations may line up with this skill set better than I anticipated. At this point, I’m grateful for all the encouragement I can find. 🙂

  35. I’m so looking forward to working through this process. I believe I will be a stellar proofreader and hope it becomes a large part of my stable of services I offer. Thanks so much, Caitlin!

  36. Oh, I know I will find it challenging if the court reporter has different ideas than I do about what is correct. Thank you for the warning!

  37. This article makes me even more excited and more sure that I am in the right place with Transcript Proofreading. I was a medical transcriptionist for 40 years, all based on the spoken words of healthcare professionals, where we were not not allowed to change, or edit what was said (as it had to sound authentic to the speaker) unless there were obvious content mistakes. They often rambled on and on, and many times I wanted to change what they were saying for clarity, but instead learned that correct punctuation was the key for the final document to make sense to the reader, and it was actually a fun challenge.

  38. My I be able to take this to heart! I am one that looks for perfection and have to remind myself perfect is not always necessary. I also struggle with the many different ways I have learned "proper" grammer through various jobs. It's very different writing grant proposals vs Point of Instruction guides for the Army. My current job depends on a lot of "chat" communication which is lots of shortcut writing. Here's to unlearning and being okay with it.

    Great article!

  39. This paragraph really hit home for me since I am so quick to want to correct a speaker's grammar. I now realize the importance of reigning back that urge!

    "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."

  40. Thanks for helping me understand that court reporting services would be recording the actual language of conversations in legal proceedings and more. I can imagine the importance of their job is, since they can easily transcribe everything that is being talked about by various people involved in a case. It might even be a huge help for the defendant if they are innocent, since they can use the words of other people to their advantage.

  41. As a fiction writer in my youth into a 30+year court reporting career — the last 19 in federal court providing realtime to the judges — this is an astute description of the differences. Punctuation is absolutely more important than grammar for the proofreader. A good court reporter will hear the grammatical problems as they're coming in, and we just…. have to…. let it go. Punctuating a long, meandering, haltingly unstructured monologue or argument is one of the most demanding parts of the job. But in the end, doing it well makes that mess something coherent and useful. Thanks, all. Keep striving!

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