I'm a proofreader for a court reporting company. My transcriptionist colleagues and I sometimes differ when it comes to some of my edits. After giving some feedback recently, the response was that maybe my having been educated in Kentucky made a difference in what I was taught when it came to the basic rules of grammar and punctuation. I think I sat there kind of slack jawed for a few minutes just thinking about my elementary school education.
I was in grade school in the '70s where I attended a very small rural school that had eight classrooms total. Our gym also served as our cafeteria, and our library was a trailer attached to an exit door off the gym. Due to the small community I lived in, students were few; classes had only 10 to 15 students per teacher. Later, upon graduating from high school, I read an article in our local paper which reported that more students from my small school in the county graduated with honors than students from any other school in the district.
Statistics show that the smaller the classroom, the more attention each student gets individually, and the better they learn. I believe having been taught in this smaller environment accounts for more honor students coming from Gilbertsville Elementary in Marshall County, Kentucky than any other school in the district. We are a perfect mix of rural and suburban. However, we also have a higher population of affluent neighborhoods than surrounding counties, just in case you were wondering if we were of the “Fire Down Below” variety. I have found that people have very strange ideas about citizens of Kentucky.
But I digress. I have a hard time with the concept that diverse areas of the country teach grammar and punctuation differently from one another, whether it was the '50s or the '80s. I believe the key factors are your own skills and personal aptitude to learn.
Now, to the comma issue. We are all taught early on that a comma is used to show pause, changes of direction, and to offset a clause or a series. Those are the basics. We then learn to offset extraneous words such as now, well, therefore, however, all those words that could realistically be removed from a sentence, but are basically needed to show emotion or to convey what we are trying to say. There are, of course, many more uses for commas that we learn as we move forward in our education, but for purposes of this article, let's just stick to the basics.
I proofread court documents all day long and have seen everything from no comma usage whatsoever to what gives the impression that the transcriptionist just took a handful of commas, closed her eyes, and threw them at the page. And, I mean, a comma, after, every single, little thing, that she thought, might, possibly, need one. I am not exaggerating. The transcript went on in this exact vein for pages. I removed over a thousand commas from a 20-page transcript. When I asked the transcriptionist about it, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was incorrect to have removed all those commas and that not only did the transcriber have college-level English courses, but had also received monetary awards for accuracy. All I could think of was, “Sign me up with whoever paid you for your transcripts.” I no longer proof that transcriber's work. To the day that person left, their belief continued to be that the overly liberal comma usage was correct.
I own a transcription group through Google Groups called Legal, Medical, and General Transcription which now has, I think, over 400 members nationwide. We have been known to have very in-depth discussions regarding issues such as grammar and punctuation. One such conversation will always stick with me. It concluded with a discussion about the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.
One quote from the book sums it all up:
“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air."
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
What really saddens me about this quote is that the Oxford comma is now going the way of vinyl records and cassette tapes. As you might guess, I'm not fond of the newer "rules" making the Oxford comma superfluous and obsolete.
Imagine a world without commas. I cannot. My personality dictates that chaotic words and sentences be tamed, which means proper comma placement and usage. Don’t let the comma fall by the wayside. You, as transcriptionists and proofreaders, need it. Don’t let it control you either. There can be a perfect balance of comma usage, and it is not, as some would contend, a personal preference. It’s the rules. The rules really are very simple and easy to follow. Use a comma to offset when speaking directly to someone. Use a comma to separate items in a series. Use a comma to show changes in the direction of the sentence, not for a false start or a stammer. Of course, there are many other reasons to use a comma, but even the basics are a good start. The basic rules don’t change, and haven’t changed except for the blasted Oxford comma. Please remember, the comma is your friend. Play nice with it, but don’t abuse it.
By Danielle (Dani) Gordon, CET
Danielle has lived her whole life on Kentucky Lake in far western Kentucky. She has two children, a boy and a girl, ages 10 and 24 respectively. Danielle is a paralegal by education, but has been working at home as a transcriptionist/proofreader since November 1, 2000. Her hobbies include camping and fishing and just about anything outdoors. Danielle obtained her CET in October of 2014.