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What Are Transcription Symbols?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Transcription symbols are text markers used to provide additional information about a written transcript of proceedings or recorded materials. Several different systems are in use around the world. Transcriptionists typically pick a single system and use it consistently, although if they handle radically different kinds of materials for clients, they may need to learn multiple systems. These symbols utilize common punctuation in a variety of ways to provide context in transcribed text.

In a straight transcript, the document should identify the speakers and what they said. It is common to number lines to make them easier to refer to. Transcription symbols add information about pauses, overlapping speech, and vocalizations that aren’t words. Sounds like sniffs, sighs, and laughs can be noted in the documentation with standardized symbols to make them readily understandable. It can take time to learn to use and read these symbols.

Lines of text can include transcription symbols to note that someone was speaking loudly or softly, and where the stress was placed on different words. Actions may be described in parentheses or italics, like (sniffs) or sniffs. Pauses can also be recorded with dots (.....) or parentheses noting the timing of the pause, like (2.3) to indicate a pause of 2.3 seconds. Overlapping speech is commonly recorded with brackets [] and the = sign can be used to indicate that someone was cut off, differentiating from a word that trailed off unfinished, which is often recorded as wo-, with a dash.

Not all transcripts require such detailed markups. They can be particularly useful in the preparation of transcripts from therapy sessions and patient intake interviews. A psychiatrist might want to take special note of physical activities and speech habits in sessions because they could provide important clues to treatment. A soft voice, for instance, might indicate a reluctance to discuss a particular topic, while loud speech might happen when clients get upset or agitated. Transcription symbols record events in detail even after memory fades.

The use of transcription symbols can also be useful in court proceedings. Court transcriptionists are commonly trained to reproduce everything they hear faithfully and with extreme detail. If questions arise about a trial, it can be important to know exactly what happened and how. For example, if a witness was cut off while speaking by an attorney, this might mean that the jury didn’t hear a key piece of information. Likewise, verbal ticks might indicate that a witness was not speaking truthfully, and this would be important to have on the record if a witness is challenged later.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Jan 31, 2015

I think script writers should utilize transcription symbols. I read film scripts sometimes. The writer needs to describe how the dialogues are spoken, people's actions as they speak, how loud they are, etc. This is done as descriptions in parenthesis before or after the dialogue. But it takes a lot of space and it can be tiring to write. If transcription symbols were used, that might make the writing go faster. The only downside is that people will have to learn the meaning of the symbols first.

By bluedolphin — On Jan 30, 2015

@turquoise-- I see what you mean but I don't think that's what was meant here. Court reporters use transcription symbols, not just to record pauses or ways one is speaking, but to actually transcribe every single thing that is said.

Court reporters don't type the way we do and they don't use a computer or typewriter. They use a stenotype machine which is a machine that uses symbols. Court reporters know these symbols very well and each symbol represents a word or even a phrase. This allows reporters to type everything that is said very quickly without missing any of it. The stenotype machine is linked to a computer that records everything and the reporter later transcribes them into regular text.

By turquoise — On Jan 30, 2015

Although I agree that transcription symbols ought to be used in recording court proceedings for the judges to review the behavior and speech patterns of witnesses and the accused. However, I don't think that is'a very good idea to interpret these without the assistance of psychiatrist, psychologist or speech expert.

People may speak in different ways in court. Some people have social anxiety for example and don't respond well to stress. This can cause pauses as they speak and even stammering. It would be wrong to assume that an accused is speaking this way because he or she is lying.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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