GRAMMAR: How important is punctuation?

By Santo J. Aurelio

Punctuation is extremely important. Without it, sentences cannot be understood. The job of a reporter is basically twofold: to capture all of the spoken words and then to transcribe those words correctly using correct and understandable punctuation. Yes, I know that it takes a bit longer to “think” about the words and how they should be properly punctuated. But isn’t that what reporters are being paid to do – to capture words and to put them in a form that others can readily understand?

I was a reporter for 39 years before I had to retire because of hearing problems that could not be remedied. During those years I frequently worked with other reporters and had many opportunities to view their work. By and large, their work was satisfactory, but I confess that some reporters, even though they had fine reputations, did not transcribe with the proper amount (read: the highest amount) of correct punctuation. Pushing the work out too quickly and without following the rules of punctuation is not professional.

Court reporting is a profession, and it must be treated as such. If we want to receive the trust and respect of judges, attorneys, and, in fact, everyone, then we must do the best possible job of taking down all of the words and transcribing them for any reader to fully understand. Yes, I know that many speakers do not finish their sentences, and that is exactly where our special knowledge of punctuational rules will come into play. If a speaker doesn’t finish a sentence or if he or she is interrupted or simply trails off, the only way to transcribe that is by a dash or two hyphens. Using a few periods to show that is incorrect. Why? Because three or four periods (…or ….) is strictly reserved for ellipses.

Ellipses must be employed when one is quoting and deliberately leaves some words out. If those omitted words come at the beginning or middle of the quote, then three periods (…) must be used to show that there was a deliberate omission. If the omitted words come at the end of the quote, then four periods (….) must be used to show that there were words omitted at the end of the quote (that is, three plus one for the sentence-ending period).

Unfortunately, some court reporting programs are incorrectly instructing reporting students to put in a series of periods to denote an interruption or a trailing off. That is incorrect. And some programs are instructing students that it is proper to have just one space between sentences. That, too, is incorrect. Two spaces should be used after a sentence is finished; after an end-of-sentence question mark; and after a colon.

And, of course, all words should be spelled correctly. Names, especially of the principals, must be spelled correctly.

What I am attempting to do now in writing this article is to encourage and motivate every reporter, whether tyro or veteran, to do the absolute best that he or she can in taking down words and transcribing them with correct punctuation.

Semicolons should only be used if the reporter knows exactly how to use them. There are only three ways to employ them: (1) between two independent clauses (sentences, as, He is tall; she is short); (2) when transcribing series (as, I told her that she was smart; that she was organized; and that she had a great future); and (3) to avoid confusion (as, Ted came from Rome; Bill came from Berlin; Joe came from Arlington, Texas; and Harry from Cairo).

An error that I see frequently in magazines, books, and even the writings of some top reporters is the improper use of a hyphen after an adverb which precedes an adjective. The following sentence is punctuationally correct: The extremely tall girl is only 12 years old. The error that I see often in a sentence of that type is the insertion of a hyphen after (in this case) extremely.

All reporters deserve the greatest respect from all with whom they come in contact and all who read their transcripts. If all reporters want to have the respect of all, whether judges, attorneys, or anyone, then they have to earn that respect; and the way to gain that respect is to do a great job capturing all of the words spoken and transcribing them correctly and punctuationally correctly on every single case.

I was very proud to be a reporter. Each case was a challenge, but it was very satisfying to know that I did my very best on every case. The profession of reporting is just that: a profession. And we should all aspire to be true professionals. My last question to all reporters is: What better way to preserve our reporting profession than to do as perfect and professional a job taking down all of the words spoken and transcribing them with correct punctuation as is humanly possible? I rest my case.

Santo (Joe) Aurelio, RDR (Ret.), is an honorary member of NCRA. He resides in Arlington, Mass., and can be reached at sjaurelio@comcast.net.