Literal v Readable, A Primer on Transcribing What We Hear

Very often on stenographer social media, we get questions about whether something should be reflected as said, sic’d, or “corrected.” There has been plenty of discussion over the years on whether to correct lawyers’ or witnesses’ speaking in transcription. There are a lot of ways to take this conversation, and in the spirit of keeping this fun, I’ll hit the highlights.

Necessary in this discussion is: “What is my transcript?” The bulk of freelance work goes to deposition reporting. When a case is filed and initial motions to dismiss are decided, if the case is not dismissed, it moves to discovery. Discovery is where the parties exchange information that they have so that when it is time for trial, there are few or no “surprise” pieces of evidence. At the conclusion of discovery, the parties can ask the court to decide the case as a matter of law if there are no factual questions in dispute. If the case cannot be resolved as a matter of law, it goes on to trial. An integral part of the discovery phase is deposition testimony. Parties have an opportunity to question the other side’s witnesses under oath. Witness testimony is evidence, and the evidence unveiled during the discovery phase is ultimately what helps parties settle cases, courts decide whether a matter can be decided as a matter of law, impeach witnesses at trial, and appellate courts review the decisions of the trial court. In America, the testimony of one witness can convict beyond a reasonable doubt. Your transcript is the verbatim record of what occurred during the testimony, and again, that testimony is powerful evidence.

Unsurprisingly, there are many different takes on what “verbatim” means. We can all read the dictionary definition: “in exactly the same words that were used originally.” But court reporting and transcription are service industries, and there have been many times where court reporters are pressured by a client or company to change that verbatim record in some small way. In my view, that pressure gave life to a lot of court reporter conventions that are daunting for students, new reporters, and even veteran reporters to master. For example, as a young reporter, I was told to take out false starts, never ever report “um,” and to even physically remove strikes and withdrawns from deposition transcripts. Now, wherever you are, the laws in your jurisdiction supersede my advice or opinion, but I am going to share the way I look at each in the hopes that this can be shared with others who struggle with these. For sure, anything I write can and will be debated, but debate can only improve our field.

Removing False Starts

This was drilled into me by agencies as a young reporter. “Always remove false starts.” It’s still being pushed on young reporters today, to the point where some may not even be taking them down. Frankly, I see this as bad advice. The essential factors for a reporter to consider in the way something is transcribed are context and readability. Does my transcription of the verbatim notes change the context of this testimony? Does my transcription degrade the readability of this testimony? In my view, removing most false starts will not actually change context, and they will improve readability. As an example:

“Q. Are you — did you go to the store?”

“A. Yes.”

It would be difficult to argue that removing the words “are you” and simply changing the question to “Did you go to the store?” hurts the context. Nothing has changed. And so to the extent removing false starts is looked at favorably in our field, I get it. But what about when it would change context?

“Q. Are you — I mean, did you go — did you go to the — sorry. Did you, if you remember, go to the store?”

“A. I’m sorry. I don’t understand your question.”

What happens in a world where a young reporter, told that they must remove false starts, removes all that and changes it to “Did you, if you remember, go to the store?” The context is unequivocally changed. Verbatim, it’s very clear that the question was not clear. There was a lot of extra “stuff” in there. If such a question is cleaned up, it makes the witness look like they’re not paying attention or unintelligent. Removing false starts can hurt the context and stop legal professionals from doing their job. Imagine that the deposition is taken by a young associate and the trial lawyer is a seasoned vet who did not sit on the deposition. Reading a “cleaned up” version, the trial lawyer might believe the witness is a bumbling mess. When that witness gets on the stand and is given clear questions, it’s going to be a surprise for that trial lawyer. So even where law may allow the removal of false starts, it’s a decision the court reporting practitioner should make using their own sound judgment, and not on the whims of an agency or client. You may also want to see NCRA Advisory Opinion 4 to the extent it touches on this topic.

Never Ever Report Um

Again, I see the reporting of “um” as a matter of context and readability. Let’s say that you’re taking a motion argument, and it looks something like:

“MS. ATTORNEY: Um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um — your Honor, based on the hearing that we just had, there is no set of facts under which the people may prevail. I therefore ask you to dismiss this case in the interest of justice.”

Does it really change anything if you don’t report the ums in that specific instance? Nope. And this isn’t a hypothetical. I recall a situation just like this, where the attorney had, without question, made the point they were trying to make, and then became very flustered asking the court to make a decision. But what if the situation was a trial situation?

“Q. Did you see Mr. Vanhorten shoot Mr. Gorfasi?”

“A. Um, well — um, yes.”

If you transcribe that sentence as “well, yes” the context is destroyed. The witness seems crystal clear on what they saw. Those ums have a kiloton of context that transform what is being said. I’m not here to say anyone who omits an um is a bad reporter, but think twice before subscribing blindly to the “truism” that we do not report ums.

Physically Remove Strike That or Withdrawn

Often, strike that is seen as a false start. Just imagine the typical scenario:

“Q. Were you — strike that. Were you ever an employee of ABC Corporation?”

Again, the rule of context comes into play. In the above scenario, I can’t say I see a big problem with the omission of the false start strike that. But as a mentor to many over the years, I’ve come across the following scenario:

“Q. Were you ever an employee of ABC Corporation?”

“A. Well, I wasn’t an employee at the time.”

“MR. GUY: Move to strike.”

What have mentees come back and said? “Chris, my agency says remove strikes. Do I remove that whole thing?” Working reporters have had to counsel many a new reporter. “No. We cannot remove portions. That motion to strike is the attorney preserving their motion on the record, which will be later reviewed by a court.”

Ultimately, with these three categories, leaving things in as they are said is often the way to go. A court can always seal, strike, or disregard something that shouldn’t be in the transcript. On the other hand, a reporter that does not put something in the transcript can be questioned about why it was removed, or even have their neutrality called into question.

Mispronunciations

Now that we’ve explored some of the common things that impact context, let’s explore some more “what ifs.” Since I was a newbie, the discussion has come up, “Someone said a word incorrectly. Should I sic this?” This comes from a very literal way of thinking sometimes cleverly but pejoratively termed in our field as “the literati.” The pressure is turned up to make something “perfectly verbatim” when there is a video, which brings up the question “are we not being verbatim when the video camera’s not on?” There are two major schools of thought, literal verbatim and readability, and within those schools of thought, you have many different situations and many different gradients. I could not possibly address each one, but let’s hit some common examples.

“Let me ax you a question.” It’s obvious to anyone that the speaker means to say ask. Many speakers do not enunciate clearly. It does not change the context to transcribe “ask,” and it greatly improves the readability, so for such moments where the context is not endangered and the word is obvious, there’s no harm in having the correct word rather than some kind of phonetic spelling. I would say the same for names. Let’s say someone’s name is Dr. Giglio. One person says “Jig-lee-oh” and the other says “Gig-lee-oh.” Again, if it’s clear that this is the same person, and the context is not endangered, transcribing the correct name is the way to go. If it’s not clear, then it’s time to speak up and get some clarification on the spelling! This is not to say you can never write a name phonetically, but try to make these spellings consistent throughout the transcript to the extent people are saying the same word, even if they say it a little differently.

“It’s supposably true.” In addition to not changing context by being too verbatim, we have to be mindful that sometimes people use words that sound like other words. If someone says a “wrong” word or a word we are not accustomed to hearing, we must resist the urge to correct, because that actually can alter context. We must also take the time to research things we are not a hundred percent sure on. In my book, supposably was not a word. The WordPress spellchecker says it’s not a word. I came to learn, a decade into my career, that supposably means “as may be conceived or imagined.” Supposedly is more of a synonym for allegedly. Was this true 10 years ago? I have no idea. As court reporters, we face the harsh reality of language drift. Words fall in and out of use. People do not speak as we were taught. So while you might correct something like axing a question, you have to think twice before you correct something that’s “supposably wrong.” If you have three minutes, check out my favorite video illustrating language drift. You can go back about 700 years before English starts sounding like gibberish and giraffes were camelopards. Through a mix of self-initiated research and our continuing education culture, we keep ourselves ahead of the average transcriber.

Whether there is video or not, you want a clear and logical reason why you have transcribed something the way you transcribed it. In my view, the strongest reason for a transcription choice is “transcribing it any other way would change the context or was not verbatim.” Reporter convention and training take a backseat to that.

What devilry is this?

Dialects

Court reporters are masters of English dialects even when we have no training. There is a study out there that pretty much shows we are twice as accurate as laypeople when transcribing the AAVE dialect. The thing that makes us, as humans, so much better than computers at transcribing speech that has a dialect or an accent is our ability to understand context. For example, in the Northern Cities Vowel Shift dialect, someone might say something that sounds like “she went down the black.” Dependent upon the context, we know that that sentence can be “she went down the block.” In brief, our ability to look at the totality of a statement is important. What a reporter may hear is “down the black.” But what must be transcribed, in the interest of both context and readability, is “down the block,” unless there’s some context that tells us “black” is actually correct.

This is also where our ability to speak up for the record comes into play, because if a reporter is unsure, they can seek clarification. For purposes of our work, dialects and accents are very much like garden-path sentences where a sentence goes in a different direction from what you were anticipating; we can discern what’s said from the context. Though accents are a different animal from dialects, the same rules apply. Early in my career, I had a gentleman say something that sounded like “I got up and leave her.” Through context I knew the statement was “I gotta pull a lever.” He was explaining how to open bus doors! Another man talked about the “zeh bruh lies or stripes” on the road, which could only be “zebra lines or stripes.” We’re not here to pick apart how something was said, we’re here to take down what was said.

Latin

“Vice-a versa” versus “vice versa.” “Neezy preezy” versus “nisi prius.” “Nun pro tunc” versus “nunc pro tunc.” “In forma papyrus” versus “in forma pauperis.” Because of Latin’s considerable history and various modern regional pronunciation schemes, this is another thing that gets confusing fast. My advice? Treat it like mispronunciations. Treat it like dialects. Treat it like all these other examples and look at the context. If someone says, objectively, the wrong phrase, then don’t change it for them, but if you know exactly what they said, don’t transcribe it phonetically for the sake of “verbatim.” Take a look.

“MR. GUY: Quid pro quo is the Latin phrase for ‘from possibility to actuality.'”

So we head over to Google, and we can see clearly that “a posse ad esse” is the Latin phrase for that. Quid pro quo means “something for something.” No correction is necessary here. We knew what was meant, but the wrong thing was said. Verbatim is our friend. But what if it’s just a butchered pronunciation?

“MR. GUY: vee-low-shee-yee-yus quam asparagi coke-a-tor is the Latin phrase for ‘faster that asparagus can be cooked.'”

MR. GUY: velocius quam asparagi coquantur is the Latin phrase for ‘faster than asparagus can be cooked.'”

If you’re following along, you can probably tell that I think the second one is the obvious choice. No matter how butchered that pronunciation might be, if it’s clear, transcribing the wrong word or a series of phonetic jabs is what a computer would do. You’re better than that, use it to your advantage. And do not be too hard on yourself for making a mistake. I have had colleagues that were told the incorrect spelling of Latin phrases by people far more educated than many of us are. Whatever the issue, learn from various mistakes and situations, try not to become so rigid with regard to language that it endangers context, and continue to grow.

But I Was Taught This Way

Whenever stuff like this comes up, inevitably you’ll get responses like “but I was taught this way,” or “I’ve been doing it my way for 30 years.” Nobody can really fight with that. We have to respect one another and those various perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. But I’ve come to look at it from a liability and reputation perspective for the freelance court reporter. If someone questioned you on a transcript, how would you respond? “My agency told me to” is a very unsafe response, because the agency can just say they didn’t, and if you’re an independent contractor, they’re not supposed to have direction and control over you. So take a look at the practice, and imagine being questioned on it. “That’s what you said” is a much stronger response than “everybody does it this way.”

We have to deal with the fact that, while we may live in a world of “truisms,” like “clients expect us to clean up the record,” these things are not universal, and in fact, as a young reporter, I had a lawyer tell me “you can’t change [false starts], it’s part of the record!” Imagine being about 20, and repeatedly told that “everyone cleans it up,” “this is normal,” “this is expected,” “you’re a bad reporter if you don’t fix it,” and then being slammed with “you can’t take that out.” It’s not surprising to me that there are reporters of all ages and experience levels that struggle with this. I’m really hoping this helps the strugglers: I was you. You’re not going to have an immediate answer for every situation, but having an objective or neutral method for how you make these decisions is imperative. If problems arise, and they occasionally do, you’re going to be defending your work. Remember, this is all about having an accurate record for review by the parties, trial courts, and appellate courts. Our expertise is what stops errors like “lawyer dog” from making it into the record and ruining people’s lives. If your work hasn’t changed the context of a statement and the transcript is readable, you’re off to a great start.

Language Study and Service Revisited

Let’s just get to the point. There is a study to be published in the linguistic journal Language in June 2019. Stenonymous covered this immediately. Succinctly the study showed that court reporters in the Philadelphia area were pretty inaccurate when dealing with the dialect of African American English. We had some suspicions about potential inaccuracy in the way the news was reporting it, and kept an eye out for information as it developed.

In early March, we came across new articles which identified one of the hard-working linguists on the study, Taylor Jones. Upon review of Mr. Jones’s blog — soon to be Dr. Jones as far as we’re aware — we reached out and he responded to everything we had to ask.

Though we haven’t yet gotten to see the study, between correspondence with Jones, review of his blog, and review of media coverage on the topic, we have some conclusions to present:

  • The court reporters were reporters working in court.
  • It’s true that stenographic court reporters were used.
  • The trials were not testing the reporters’ real-time accuracy, and participants were given as much time as they wanted to transcribe.
  • The accuracy of sentences was only 59.5% correct. When measuring word-for-word accuracy the accuracy was as much as 82.9%. Obviously, our stenographer training measures word-to-word accuracy.
  • Small “errors” were not counted as errors, such as if a speaker said “when you tryna go to the store?” Trying to and tryin’ to would both be counted as correct. An error would be “when he tries to go.” So the errors, as best I can tell, would fall in line with what NCRA says constitutes an error.
  • Misunderstandings come from a number of different sources, including common phonetic misunderstandings and dialect-motivated misunderstandings as discussed in William Labov’s Principles of Linguistic Change trilogy. While Jones himself said bias cannot be ruled out, there are a number of syntactical and accent-related issues that may honestly be a challenge for court reporters and the average judge, juror, or listener.
  • There were over 2,200 observations done in this study. 83 statements multiplied by 27 court reporters.

Now for some interesting highlights from my exchange with Jones:

  1. African American English is not wrong. It is not slang. It has grammar and structure. It’s not slang, Ebonics, or street talk.
  2. The people that conducted the study are not accusing court reporters of doing anything wrong. In fact, in my conversation with Jones, he was supportive of a human stenographer over an AI or automatic transcription because we still carry a far greater accuracy than those alternatives.

So here is where we are: We’ve got a piece of evidence from the linguistic community that there is an area we can improve on. I had briefly been in touch with a Culture Point representative who said they can work with organizations around the country on their transcription suite package, and that the budget for the workshop varies dependent on modality and class size.

We should all do our best to incorporate these ideas into our work and training. If you are a state or national association, don’t shy away from the opportunity to dive in and develop training surrounding different dialects, or even fund studies to seek out these deficiencies. If you are a working reporter, don’t be afraid to ask for a repetition. You are the guardian of an accurate and true record, and our work collectively can impact people’s lives and fortunes.

Short last note, I apologize to my readers and to Mr. Jones. I had promised my readers I’d get this article out and the email exchange out much sooner. I feel this is important and want to be a part of spreading the message that we can always do better. Though the initial response by Mr. Jones was March 8, I was unable to get this draft out until April 2. For that, I am sorry.

May 23, 2019 update: This came up in the news again and another person brought to my attention this draft of the study made available before its publication in the Language journal. It was noted by that person that the reporters were asked to paraphrase what was said, and that we do not interpret. My understanding and memory from my email with Jones is that they were asked to transcribe and interpret, and that at least one participant transcribed incorrectly but interpreted perfectly.

June 6, 2019 update:

Philadelphia judges came together to discuss language access after the study. As of this article, it seems the solution would be more training for court personnel than having interpreters for different English dialects.

September 13, 2019 update:

Another article popped up, ostensibly on this same study. With great respect to those article writers, I believe the headline that white court reporters don’t get black testimony is incorrect. I also believe that the contention that this is slang or Ebonics is incorrect. When I wrote Jones he was very clear that AAE is not slang. It’s a dialect. It has rules. I do hope that people really read the work for what it is and not what they want it to be. People mishear things. Judges and juries mishear things. This study brings to light that even we, the people who care most about every word said, can mishear things, and that makes it very, very important to be situationally aware and ask for clarification when it is appropriate, like many of us do every day.

January 28, 2020 update:

It should be noted that Mr. Jones, presumably now Dr. Jones, is listed as a co-founder of Culture Point on LinkedIn.

Addendum:

After some time I had an interview with VICE about this study because I was identified as being a stenographic reporter with a lot of knowledge on it. I will say while, in my mind, it showed us we must do better, ultimately it confirmed that we are people’s best chance at being understood in the courtroom. The pilot study 1 showed regular people were about 40 percent accurate. The pilot study 2 showed lawyers were 60 percent accurate. We were about 80 percent accurate. Clearly, we all want 100 percent, but when you read that we’re twice as good as your average person at taking down this dialect, it changes the spin. Later on, a Stanford study showed that automatic speech recognition had 20 percent error rate in “white speech,” 40 percent error rate in “black speech,” and worse with African American English dialect. When I graded the AAE example on their site, I saw that if it had been a steno test, it would be 20/100! It’s our skill and dedication that keeps us top quality in making the record and broadcast captioning.