Tag 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.

 

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Transcription – offshoring, onshoring, in-housing, outsourcing?

Transcription might seem like an obvious thing to outsource and ‘offshore’. After all, ‘it’s only typing isn’t it? It’s not rocket science?’ And yet ‘onshoring’ has been in the news a lot lately, with both positive and negative slants. On the one hand, onshoring could boost the UK economy; on the other hand, the fact that it now ‘costs roughly the same’ to make noodles in China as it does in the UK, according to the recent news story about Symington’s Noodles bringing noodle production back from China to the UK, is an alarming indictment on the state of the UK economy. But it’s not just that companies feel they can now pay even lower wages to UK staff; it is also the rise an rise of wages in China, exchange rate fluctuations and shipping costs too.

So how does transcription fit into this discussion? Well, another recent argument for onshoring has been quality concerns. And this article about IT onshoring suggests a number of other important concerns too: “…time zone challenges, language and other communication issues, high turnover (up to 40% annually in some cases) in offshore locations, intellectual property and security risks (especially in unregulated countries like China), are just some of the unanticipated issues that have plagued offshore development.”

And a number of of those issues could also affect transcription – the obvious one is language. Unless English is a first language then there is no way that someone can provide top quality ‘general’ transcription i.e. interview transcription services and focus group or meeting transcription services. It is possible (though perhaps doubtful) that they can provide equal quality dictated notes, for example, but a conversation – full of idioms, homonyms, a wide variety of different technical terminologies – no.

So … if I’m suggesting you should keep your transcription ‘onshore’ then what about keeping it in-house? Surely keeping it as local as possible will minimise the problems? Well no, not necessarily. And this is where we come to the ‘just typing, not rocket science’ issue. It’s true – it’s not rocket science, but it does require specialist skills, and even if you’re lucky enough to have access to a secretary or PA who can type, that doesn’t mean they can provide fast, accurate, grammatically correct and readable transcripts from an audio file … and all that on top of their regular workload.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I am recommending onshoring and outsourcing, since this is the service that we offer here at Penguin Transcription,  but I think you will agree that the arguments are valid.

Language is Evolving – and the Transcriptionist has to evolve with it!

The way language evolves has become a fascination for me since I started transcribing. I started thinking about this again when @Wordnerdsally on Twitter brought my attention to the latest rebuttal, by  Académie Française, of an English word (hashtag), because it’s damaging French language purity. Will they actually stop the Frenchman (or woman, or child) on the street from using the word? I very much doubt it!

The fundamental problem with the whole idea of the Académie Française as a protector of the purity of the French language is that language is not, and never has been, ‘pure’. It changes over time because it’s living and it evolves; people speak it, younger generations love to twist and turn it and make it their own, waves of immigration bring in new words and change old ones, and language just keeps on changing.

A favourite evolution of a word for me, into something more negative than its original meaning, (pejoration, in linguistic terms, so I’m told) is ‘silly’. In Old English, ‘silly’ meant, of all things, blessed! If you were blessed, I suppose you were naturally thought to be innocent, so the word then started to mean innocent. By the time of Middle English (Chaucer’s era) that had evolved into ‘deserving compassion’. Not quite sure how the link worked there but I suppose if you were innocent of a crime and had been accused of it you would deserve compassion – maybe it evolved that way? Anyway, if you needed compassion, that must mean you were weak, right? Well no, probably not, but that seems to have been the thinking then, so ‘silly’ started to mean ‘weak’. ‘From there it was ‘a short step’, says linguist Professor John McWhorter, to it coming to mean ignorant, and from ignorant it evolved into ‘lacking in good sense’, which is one of its meanings today.

This is probably a very over-simplified description of the evolution of silly, not least because it doesn’t only mean ‘lacking in good sense’. It can also mean frivolous and it can be used to describe objects, not just people. However, it’s an indication of the complexity of language and the difficulties inherent in making sense of it! And making sense of language, as it is spoken, and translating that spoken language to something that makes sense on the page, is really what transcription is all about.

The evolution of silly took place over hundreds of years, but some words change much faster than that, especially in spoken English, rather than the more formal English usually found in writing. An obvious recent example is ‘wicked’. When I was a lass ‘wicked’ meant evil, and to some it still does, but most people would hesitate to use it that way because in the younger generations it has come to mean ‘cool’ which of course when I was a lass meant slightly chilly, and not hip (a joint of the body?), groovy (having lines engraved in it?) or just ‘in with the current style’ (from ‘Urban Dictionary‘).

So a good transcriptionist isn’t ‘only’ someone with a fantastic grasp of English spelling and grammar, but someone with their ‘finger on the pulse’ of current spoken English. Fortunately at Penguin Transcription our transcriptionists are not only experienced, but range considerably in age and background. When that the word ‘mardy’ came up in a transcript I was doing I had no idea the word even existed and kept trying to ‘hear’ another word that would make sense to me, but then a younger colleague listened to it and grasped it straight away. (For those who are just approaching ‘middle age’ like me, or older, it means grumpy, surly or miserable apparently!)

How to successfully get a conference transcribed

A word on timing

The most important piece of advice I would give as a transcriptionist is that if you’re going to have your conference transcribed you should arrange for completion of the transcription before the conference even takes place! Of course you are going to want to send the transcript (or your interpretation of it) out to your speakers and delegates as soon as possible after the conference takes place, but a conference is a significant chunk of work to transcribe.

Let’s take an example of a conference where the talks (and possible workshops etc.) total 5 hours. Even if you have excellent audio recording equipment and supremely clear speakers, with minimal question and answer sessions or workshops (the point of which I will explain in a moment) the time taken to transcribe is going to be four times as long as the recording – so you’re looking at an absolute minimum length of time taken in this example of 20 hours. Twenty hours of work is probably a minimum of three day’s work for one person, and there’s a very good chance it will take longer.

A good, established transcription company, employing fully trained and competent transcriptionists who are able not just to type but also to proof-read and edit, recognise the correct homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently), and punctuate English correctly, is probably going to be booked up for at least the next few days, and if you book in your recording before the conference and agree to send it on a certain date, they will be able to turn it around for you much faster.

Audience questions and participation

Question and answer sessions are often tricky because of the range of different voices involved. This applies to the audience but also to a panel if you are having panel sessions.

For audience sessions, make sure you have ‘roving microphones’ that can be carried around the audience, so that questions are actually audible on the recording. A good conference recording set-up, so that your main speakers can be clearly heard, and individual microphones for each member of the panel are also essential. These may well come with the conference venue but make sure you check this in advance!

What your transcriptionist needs from you

Another very useful tip is to provide the transcriptionist with both a speaker list and a delegate list. Then during the conference ask the Chair to ask all delegates to state their name and position before asking the question. The transcriptionist can then refer back to the delegate list to insert the correct spelling into the transcript. The same applies, of course, to speakers, although they don’t need to state their names if you provide an agenda and they are introduced.

It is also very useful to provide the transcriptionist with any supporting material on the conference that you have available as this will help to establish ‘key words’, words that may be not in common usage but particularly relevant to the topic of the conference. A good transcriptionist will also probably be able to search out most unusual words, but this takes extra time, and if you have already provided material to help, time will be saved.

Audio or video

A videoed conference probably won’t add a huge amount to aid the transcriptionist  although if there are large numbers of slides used then it may be helpful; or it could be equally helpful to simply provide a copy of the slide presentation. The disadvantage of sending video files is their size: sound files are large; video files are huge! The larger your file is, the longer it will take for you to upload it to the internet for the transcriptionist to download it, and the longer it takes the more likely you are to lose the internet connection, which means that you’ll probably have to start all over again!

The choices are to either convert the video to audio before sending, or to simply put the video on a DVD and pop it in the post. We can receive video via our file-sending service, but the issues above do still apply, and for a file as long as a conference it might be quicker to use snail mail!

Transcribing when a translator is present

We’ve just taken on a big project, bigger in fact than either we or our client realised at first, as he wasn’t sure how many hours of recording he had! All the files have the interviewer, the interviewee and a translator. We only have to transcribe the English – which is a good thing, as between us in the office we only have a handful of French and Spanish, and this is something a bit more exotic!

Should be easy, you’re probably thinking – after all, if the sound file is an hour long you’re probably only transcribing half an hour’s worth! So why, you might very reasonably ask, am I charging this client our standard rate, and not a reduced amount?

Well in fact I have offered a reduced rate if the recordings are really clear and the translator speaks excellent English – but we (my client and I) rather doubt there are any recordings like that! This is inevitable and I am in no way blaming the client, or indeed the translator! Of course in an ideal world, all recordings for transcription would take place in a quiet office space with the windows closed, no air conditioning on (because it can play havoc with the recorder!) and, where a translator is required, the translator speaking immaculate English with no accent, as well as speaking the tongue he’s translating from perfectly.

Unfortunately real life does rather tend to get in the way – and when you’re recording in rural China or in a war zone, or even an oral history at a little railway museum in the UK, all of which are projects we have worked on in the past, the chances of being able to find a nice, quiet office to work in are pretty small. The chances of finding a perfectly bilingual translator are even slighter!

So although we can, in theory, race through the non-English parts and just type the English, in this project the recording quality is quite poor, the translators’ English leaves much to be desired and many of the translators also have strong accents. Also, the nature of conversation between three people means that the discussions are not clearly and neatly divided into English and the other language. Often, while the translator is trying to do his bit in English, the interviewee thinks of something else he wanted to say and interrupts. Sometimes the translator is talking to the interviewee and then quickly throws a few words in English at the interviewer, before replying to the interviewee in the other language. So we really have to keep our ears ‘peeled’ and listen to everything, even though we can only understand half of it!

All these issues mean it’s taking about as long, or sometimes longer, to transcribe as a good quality, all English transcription, so it’s costing about the same. All I can say is it’s a good job that we all like a challenge at Penguin Transcription!

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!