Category Archives: English grammar

Context is Key

Context is key

I think one of the main reasons I love proofreading transcripts is that it’s fun ferreting out and changing those odd little mistakes where the sentence someone’s typed makes perfect sense, but in context it’s nonsense. It’s a bit like doing a puzzle really.  Context is so often the key.

It never ceases to amaze me that people providing transcripts sometimes get it so wrong – but I won’t deny that I also make mistakes – that’s why proofreading back through is so important! An example of a mistake I proofread the other day was a colloquialism. Of course not everyone is familiar with all colloquialisms, but I was a bit surprised the transcriber didn’t highlight this one as a query. It went something like this*: ‘I like doing x, but then I like doing y too. X is fun but takes a long time. Y is a bit less fun but it’s quick. It’s swings and roundabouts really.’ The transcriber had put ‘swims and roundabouts’ which at least gave me a chuckle. There’s no excuse for it though – when someone is transcribing this and types ‘swims and roundabouts’ a ‘that’s odd’ flag should automatically start waving in their brain. Then all you have to do is look it up on dear ol’ Google. You immediately get, other than a few references to an Angry Birds theme park that will include ‘a mixture of themed swims and roundabouts…’, a notification saying ‘Did you mean swings and roundabouts?

Then there’s the homonyms of course, or strictly speaking homophones – where words sound identical but are actually spelt differently. The obvious suspects are things like ‘they’re’ and ‘their’, or ‘aloud’ and ‘allowed’, but to be honest I wouldn’t employ anyone who couldn’t manage those! It’s the subtle ones that do still crop up though:

  • ‘It was all together a fine kettle of fish’ is wrong. It should be ‘It was altogether a fine kettle of fish’, because ‘all together’ means various things in one place, but altogether means completely.
  • ‘I was going to brooch the subject’ is nonsense because brooch is a piece of jewellery. The word should be ‘broach’ which means to bring up for discussion.
  • ‘The road was tortuous’ or ‘the road was torturous’? Well, either could potentially make sense. The first one means the road was full of twists and turns and the second one means it was full of pain and suffering.

The only way to know what the third example above should be, if the word itself isn’t clear on the tape after a few listens, is to look at the context. If the speaker goes on to say, ‘I thought if the bends got any tighter it would be quite dangerous’ then suggestion one is a winner, but she says, ‘It was a journey I really didn’t want to make. I knew it was going to be painful before I started,’ then we’re looking at option two.

Another essential part of proofreading is research, generally internet-based, to check on people’s names, or locations mentioned in a transcript. Searching out an obscure village in Thailand, for instance, listening again and again to check, ‘Is that really what he said, or is it wishful thinking on my part, because it’s a name I’ve found?’ And then going back and seeing if he says anything else about the village to give me a clue… context again. Perhaps ‘It was near Chiang Mai’. Heck, the one I found is down in the south and Chiang Mai is up north – start again; but what a sense of achievement when you do track them down!

One has to be a little careful not to waste time though. Perhaps in the case above the interviewer knew exactly where the interviewee was talking about and could have filled in the blank in a second or two! So we always try to fill in the blanks, but if something uncertain then we’ll always flag it up for the interviewer to double-check.

Then there’s bits you can’t quite hear – either the person’s mumbling or the recording isn’t great, or the interview is recorded somewhere noisy and a train went past blowing its’ whistle.  I always like to make a stab at those, although I’ll always highlight them as only possibilities, rather than definite. An example cropped up today. Someone was talking about making a contribution to something, ‘but not very much and very tan-xxx-ly.’ I could hear the ‘tan’ and the ‘ly’ quite clearly but the whole word wasn’t quite clear. Context was key again – she’d only played a roll from the side-lines so the missing word was ‘tangentially’.

So if you’re a novice transcriber reading this, do take on board that context is absolutely vital in this kind of work – and if you’re a potential client, please be assured that all work from Penguin Transcription is transcribed by a small team of experienced and knowledgeable transcribers, and then carefully proofread – taking context into account!

* I can’t use real examples as all our work is treated as strictly confidential.



General transcription ‘versus’ specialist transcription

I’ve just read a post which really irritated me! It suggested that ‘general transcription can be a route into a more specialist transcription role,’ and I dare say that’s true, but the way the post was written suggested (to me at least) that general transcribers were slightly second-class citizens compared to the great and the good in say medical or legal transcription.

To my mind that’s a bit like saying a labrador is better than a chihuahua … or for all those indignant chihuahua fans out there, a bit like saying a chihuahua is better than a labrador. The point is that they’re quite different skills. Both involve typing and both involve, at least to some extent, having a decent knowledge of English* grammar and punctuation, but while the specialist transcriptionist usually deals with dictation, the general transcriptionist usually deals with interviews or groups, and that’s where a whole other set of skills comes in.

The specialist transcriptionist will often be provided with the punctuation by the person dictating, although frankly that person probably gets it wrong as often as not; the general transcriptionist typing an interview, however, has to work out where all the punctuation goes, and also has to convert to text an often rambling and slightly incoherent conversation, so that when it is read back it actually makes sense.

The specialist transcriptionist will have to be conversant with specialist language, usually medical or legal, and have a wide vocabulary in this specific sphere. The generalist , on the other hand, needs a good general knowledge as he or she could be covering rocket science one day and religion the next. He or she also needs to be a good lateral thinker, to make sure that the word s/he thinks s/he is hearing is a word that ‘fits’ in context.

Both roles are highly skilled, and both involve more than ‘just typing’ but they are definitely quite separate skills and I think they are probably suited to different sorts of people. Whereas a specialist transcriber may enjoy and take pride in drawing on and building up their specialist medical or legal knowledge,  I love doing general transcription because of the endless variety of topics we cover. This week we’ve been transcribing about sexuality, stately homes, domestic violence and development of website statistics. Next week  we might be typing about sheep diseases or company culture again.

Please visit our website, to find out more about the transcription services we offer.

* I am only talking about English transcription here as that’s what I know about!

How apostrophes work and why they matter

So many people are confused by apostrophes, and yet the rules are really very simple and do make writing much easier to understand if used properly.

Apostrophes are used in only two ways:

1. To indicate ownership

2. To indicate an abreviation

Now what’s so hard about that?

Here are a couple of simple examples illustrating ownership:

The cat’s bowls are empty. (The apostrophe here tells you that some bowls belong to the cat, and also that we are talking about only one cat, because the apostrophe come before the s.)

The cats’ bowl is empty. (The apostrophe tells you that a bowl, shared by more than one cat, is empty. You can tell there is more than one cat involved because the apostrophe comes after that s of cats.)

And what about abbreviation? Well, every time you see a word like can’t, won’t or isn’t, the apostrophe is telling you that a word has been abbreviated – in this case the word ‘not’. These are of course shortened forms of cannot, will not and is not.  (And yes, I admit won’t is an odd shortening of will not, and I’m sure there’s a good etymological reason for it, but I don’t know what it is!)

Apostrophes are never used to indicate a plural!

The famous ‘green grocers’ apostrophe’ comes from the misconception that you always need an apostrophe before an s. It was apparently often seen on greengrocers display boards and price notices – things like ‘Apple’s – 5op per lb’. The apostrophe is completely superfluous here. There is nothing belonging to the apple and the sign isn’t a shortening of ‘Apple is 50p per lb’, so no apostrophe is needed.

But here’s where it does get slightly confusing …

A friend of mine who is a retired teacher apparently spent many years teaching her primary school classes that the word it’s meant ‘belonging to it’. That makes perfect sense according to what we have above – an indication of ownership. Unfortunately it’s wrong. It’s is a contraction of ‘it is’, and as ‘it’s’ is already taken, so to speak, with that contraction, ‘belonging to it’ is left apostrophe-less and is written its. So ‘The cat wants its bowl filling’ and ‘What’s that down there meowing at the bowl? It’s the cat.’

And then there’s the little matter of irregular plurals. Where a plural is not made by sticking an s on the end of a word, apostrophes tend to be used slightly differently. So for example let’s look at man/men, woman/women, child/children. If you want to say that one man owns a meadow and that meadow should be mowed, you could say, ‘The man’s meadow needs mowing.’ However, unlike ‘normal’ plurals, if the meadow belonged to several men you’d say ‘The men’s meadow needs mowing’ and not ‘the mens’ meadow needs mowing.’  The same would apply to the children’s playground or the women’s reading group. Of course, with these irregular plurals you know straight away that you are talking about more than one person, so there is not need for the apostrophe to come after the s to tell you.

Why they matter

Well Waterstones the booksellers got themselves some minor publicity recently by changing their name from Waterstone’s, having decided that the apostrophe didn’t matter to them. Indeed, in the case of a company name, I suppose it doesn’t, but there are times when a missing or misplaced apostrophe can cause confusion.

I have to admit that there are plenty of times when a missing or misused apostrophe looks funny to those in the know but actually isn’t doing any harm, but there are instances where the lack of an apostrophe can make a dramatic difference. My favourite, and one that is often quoted, is from Kingsley Amis: “Those things over there are my husbands.”

I think that’s pretty much all there is to it, except to say that if you’re (contraction of you are!) still confused, I can thoroughly recommend The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by RL Trask*, or for a bit of light reading, the highly entertaining and informative Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss.

I must away – there’s a cat here loudly informing me that his bowl is empty!

*Penguin Transcription, like the thousands of other companies with Penguin in their name, is (sadly!)  in no way related to Penguin Books who publish this guide!