I mean because the thing is because um like well you know how we don’t people don’t like talk like we write we sort of you know oh I’m going off over here and then I’m over here something else and it all kind of runs together whatever and then kind of because what it is is that you talk as you think you don’t really think about it you just well maybe sometimes you do but most of the time it’s just say it you don’t don’t think about it you know and I guess that maybe that kind of makes it a bit hard
Well, yes, actually. It does make it a bit hard.
If you’ve ever tried to turn spoken utterances into written text, then you will know it is not as simple as it sounds. The transformation involves a number of steps, usually beginning with transcription. Already this can present difficulties, as there are different ways to transcribe audio files. Even in their raw form, some transcripts require an exacting accuracy, while others can afford more flexibility.
The presentation of the transcription can vary as well, depending on who does it and for what purpose. Linguistic transcription, for instance, is sprinkled with cryptic symbols that signify all those meaningful parts of speech that are not words. These include, entertainingly enough, the use of the “@” symbol to indicate laughter, while the “#” symbol is applied to utterances that are deemed unintelligible or uncertain. (And suddenly hashtags make way more sense to me.)
Where things get interesting from an editor’s perspective is after the words are turned from speech into script. This is often when they need to be emended – whether slightly or significantly – to ensure they appear in an orderly form for their audience.
As the sample text above endeavours to explain, we do not speak in neatly punctuated sentences. We hedge and garble, we pivot and maunder. We cram our conversation with all manner of fillers, with the result that much of what we say isn’t really what we mean.
Quiz a scribble of editors about this and you’ll get a range of responses, shared with varying degrees of vehemence. Some will insist that no changes can be made to the text. None. Every “er”, “um”, “like” and “you know” must be retained in their original form to avoid any risk of misrepresentation. Others might argue that the inclusion of such phrases is disrespectful to the speaker, who would surely prefer to seem lucid and intelligent in print. You’ll also find editors who will cheerfully change the odd spoken word or two in order to bend a sentence into a correct grammatical form. Their colleagues may do so too, but more warily.
Depending on the context, any and all of these approaches could be appropriate. In determining what to do, editors must take into consideration the preferences of their clients, the needs of the readership and the nature of the publication, as well as their own inclination. In some cases, a verbatim presentation of the speech as spoken is the only ethical option. Yet even here, complexity arises, as the words must still be shaped into written discourse. At the very least, this involves the application of some punctuation, and even the most benign of these marks can change the interpretation of a phrase.
One illustration of this involves the words “you know”. These are often heard in speech, but can prove problematic to punctuate. Note the difference in the following:
It can be an interesting process, you know? It’s not always as obvious as it seems.
It can be an interesting process. You know, it’s not always as obvious as it seems.
It can be an interesting process. You know it’s not always as obvious as it seems.
The absence or addition of the question mark, comma and full stop alters the nuance of this utterance. In the first version, the words “you know” are used to seek confirmation of understanding or agreement. In the second, they seem to express a reflective insight, while in the third they serve as an instructive or even didactic mechanism. While the overall meaning of the remark may be similar in all three, the mood decidedly is not.
Without hearing the intonation of the speaker, it would be difficult to determine which is the most exact rendition. The answer may be apparent in the transcription itself, but transcribers do not always add all relevant textual details. Editors therefore need to be prudent when placing punctuation in the written version of a spoken source. If necessary, they should check for accuracy with the client, transcriber or speaker.
Ellipses can be interesting in this regard too. Otherwise known as those three little dots (“…”), they are used to indicate omissions, such as when words are left out of a direct quotation. You may also have seen them beetling off the end of a sentence, as if to show uncertainty or an unfinished thought or an idea that just kind of trails away… A bit like that, really. They can be troublesome when present in the written account of a spoken text because they could be interpreted as serving either of their functions. Again, it’s best that editors confirm their usage is correct.
One other piece of punctuation to mention is square brackets. These are used in cases of of editorial insertion and contain something that did not appear in the original. Instances of this may include introducing a person’s full name in place of a personal pronoun or adding a word for the purposes of precision or grammatical clarity.
This brings us to the question of how to edit the rather garbled passage at the start of this piece. If I were editing the text as a quotation in an article and had consent to make changes, I may do something like this:
People don’t talk like we write. We sort of go off over here and then over here to something else, and it all kind of runs together. You talk as you think, and you don’t really think about it. Well, maybe sometimes you do, but most of the time you just say it, and I guess that kind of makes it a bit hard.
If I needed to maintain a closer adherence to the original utterance, it might look like this:
I mean, the thing is, well, you know how we don’t, people don’t, like, talk like we write. We sort of, you know, ‘Oh, I’m going off over here and then I’m over here [to] something else’, and it all kind of runs together, whatever. And what it is is that you talk as you think. You don’t really think about it, you just – well maybe sometimes you do – but most of the time, [you] just say it. You don’t think about it, you know? And I guess that maybe that kind of makes it a bit hard.
It is worthwhile reflecting on the difference that would be made in the above example if a question mark rather than a full stop ended the first sentence. As it is, the phrase “you know how we don’t” appears as more of a definitive statement than a query. Similarly, a semicolon could be used instead of the full stop after “talk as you think”, and a full stop could replace the comma after “don’t really think about it”. Would that change the meaning or emphasis at all?
One other oddity to note is the repeated “is” in the third sentence. This known as a double copula, a reduplicative copula, a ‘double is’ (sometimes ‘double-is’) or, neatly, as an ‘isis’. Debate surrounds whether or not these can be judged as acceptable grammatical constructions, while a whole separate squabble circles around how to punctuate them. If I encountered one of these in writing, I would most likely try to revise it. They are yet another illustration of the issues that can emerge when editing the written form of spoken words.
This discussion has raised a number of these conundrums, but there are of course many more for editors to ponder and resolve. We have also dipped into some (hopefully edifying) digressions here, all of which bear some relevance to the matter at hand.
The reality is that when it comes to editing texts that derive from speech, there’s quite a bit to consider. You know?
What challenges have you faced when turning speech into text? Have you ever had your spoken words edited by someone else? What was that experience like? And just between us, you did find those little diversions about linguistic transcription, ellipses and reduplicative copula interesting, didn’t you?