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C-Sickness —

Rethinking the abundant use of commas and capital letters

From the October/2000 NCRA Journal of Court Reporting. Not included in Fashionable Realtime

By far the two most misunderstood steps in transforming uttered words to print are applying commas and applying capitals. Before I state why, I must say it's true that many reporters including me have stubborn pride about the way they punctuate.

I want you to know that the remarks that follow are not unique. They flow from the writing habits of professionals everywhere in North America who are not court reporters but rather journalists or scholars upon whom we can rely.


Court reporters are delegated a huge responsibility in the preparation of official transcripts. We can either write the bare words as they were spoken or we can lavish them with punctuation. The choices we make become part of history, and no one's about to tell us how it's done. If we apply our right of autonomy but avoid keeping in step with literary trends, I say we're fueling our own antiquity. Put another way, bad punctuation is like bad breath: You usually don't know you've got it unless you're told.

If you're a reporter who has cornucopias of those tiny black marks dying to escape your imagination and crawl onto your pages, you're probably in the majority. Unfortunately those little suckers are not spoken and become part of your creativity but not necessarily those of the speaker.

Read the following sentences and note any comma abuse.

1. "Well, when, in your opinion, does it hurt most, taking into account, if you will, the fact that your husband, Tony, does most of the cooking, on weekends?"
2. "She has her piano lesson, and then goes home."

Example 1: I'm not so foolish to suggest I know the right way to punctuate this cumbersome sentence, but one way might be: "Well, when in your opinion does it hurt most, taking into account, if you will, that your husband Tony does most of the cooking on weekends?" (Nine commas reduced to four)

Example 2: If you feel an explanation is necessary for the absence of a comma in this example, it would be better if you don't admit it to anyone. Most people with basic grammatical training understand the principle, so repeated misuse of a comma in this circumstance is, in my view, expressing ignorance in the very area we're paid to know.

The truth is that resources for learning proper punctuation are everywhere in sight. Nowhere in National Geographic, Time, Maclean's, or Good Housekeeping will you find deliberate errors like these. Every reputable publisher follows a style sheet that defines fundamental rules of grammar and punctuation followed in its periodicals or books, and not one supports the uninformed misuse of commas evident in the examples above. Yet these were gleaned from real transcripts by real reporters who simply do their own thing. What must teachers, lawyers, physicians, and other professionals think about our transcripts? I can almost taste garlic.

I looked in texts, I looked in reference books, I looked in law journals, and I looked in trade magazines, but I could not find a single professional source to corroborate the abundant use of upper cases found in many transcripts. To some reporters, there is logic in the concept that there's a police station, and there's a Courthouse; there's a public meeting, and there's an Examination for Discovery; there's a fireman, and there's a Court Reporter. Are people in the justice system somehow more worthy of distinguishment?

In fact, this insidious habit has made its way beyond justice-system terminology. I've read about Managers of big Corporations, Driver's Licences being requested, Schools being attended, even Mothers and Fathers who offered to help. Good Grief, am I losing my Mind? (Some of the best reporters I know do this I hope they're still my friends.)

If we're ever going to look like we're fully competent, we have to submit to the rules: capital letters only when denoting a specific noun. Examples:

"She's the president" / "She's President Jones"
"He swore an affidavit" / "It's a document entitled Affidavit of Paul Smith"
"The court reporter is present" / "Madam Court Reporter, will you please read that back without commas?"

In my first reporting years I painstakingly imparted the most precise intent in my transcripts with elaborate punctuation. Later I came to realize that there's a lot more understood than I first thought. Thank heavens. Less is truly better.

My concern, of course, is that a., we follow universal principles for commas and capitals, and b., we follow each other. What will happen if we do? Well, for sure some people will be impressed that we know our stuff, and ultimately we'll command more respect and bigger demand for our services.

The Canadian Press Style Book, which looms as the standard for journalistic protocols in Canada, recommends minimizing comma and capital letter use, and evidently this practice is in vogue everywhere in North America. Modern literature avoids bulky upper cases and commas where they're simply not necessary. [e. cummings and k.d. lang might have had this very precept in mind.] Obviously the more stuff added to pure words, the greater the task of a reader to digest them. Lord knows verbatim reporting is usually convoluted enough without extraneous ink to look at.

Professional court reporters simply must comply lest we appear to come from the dark ages.


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