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.
LESS IS BETTER
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
"She's the president" / "She's President Jones"
"He swore an affidavit" / "It's a document entitled Affidavit of
"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.
Fashionable Realtime certainly must be one of the most
exhaustive works on the subject. It is obvious you have spent an awful
lot of energy, time and effort on it.
Fashionable Realtime for Steno Writers is the best
of all the change-your-theory books I've read, and I think I must
have them all. No other book on the subject is so thorough, so professional,
so well researched. On top of these things, your humorous treatment
of such a frustrating and challenging undertaking makes it seem –
dare I say? – fun.
Your text Fashionable Realtime is a godsend! I have
experienced a distinct improvement in my real-time writing after incorporating
some of the writing suggestions.
Now, this is my kind of book. I've gotten more common sense
from it than I have in five years of trying to fix theory problems
from a variety of other publications.
-MS, New York
devoured Fashionable Realtime the minute I received it and recommend
it to all I see. Again, thanks. I have been realtiming for almost 10
years, and FRT says everything I have ever wanted to say in a marvellously
(Fashionable Realtime) is by far the most concise and
logically fashioned realtime book I've seen so far, and I think I've
seen them all.
-SA, Vancouver Island
a real fan of Fashionable Realtime in fact, it's on the
bookshelf next to my computer for easy reference and have found
the suggestions and word lists to be incredibly helpful, especially
those dealing with technical prefixes and suffixes.
really must tell you again what a wonderful resource this is for us.
Other realtime books on the market don't even come close. Now that I
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Canyon County CA
you have accomplished with respect to realtime writing is admirable,
to say the least. Fashionable Realtime is I am lost for
words. You have accomplished a very great thing!