What’s Up with Transcript Dashes?

You’ve just graduated from law school, and you’re assisting a senior litigation lawyer for the first time. You understand your state’s rules of civil procedure.   Black’s Law Dictionary is your second language. But what do those dashes in the deposition transcripts mean?

CompuScripts understands why young associate attorneys might struggle with the internal punctuation common in legal transcripts. In addition to the dash, semicolons and ellipses occur more frequently in legal transcription than in other text. Even experienced litigators may question the meaning of internal punctuation when reading transcripts transcribed by different reporters. This does not mean, however, that court reporters are randomly assigning punctuation. In an effort to inform our youngest clients and refresh our more seasoned veterans about the process by which a transcript is produced, let’s look at why court reporters punctuate as they do and the sources that guide their decisions.

Punctuation marks exist to govern written composition.   As we compose, we follow the rules of punctuation in order to create text which can be easily understood. When we speak, however, proper grammar often leaves the building, taking punctuation with it. After beginning a thought, we may change course, we may trail off, or we may be interrupted by other speakers. Court reporters transcribe, rather than compose, so their job is to apply punctuation rules to the often fractured exchanges between witnesses and lawyers in order to convey the intended meaning of the speakers. Consider this example:

ATTORNEY: Were you informed — strike that.   When were you informed that the manufacturer had issued a recall for that product?
WITNESS: If the manufacturer had not sold such a —
ATTORNEY: Please answer the question.
WITNESS: I learned about the recall in February.
ATTORNEY: And you continued using the mildew stain remover through the date of the accident in August; is that correct?
WITNESS: I almost stopped using it, but…

In this case, the court reporter uses the dash to indicate that the attorney first changes thought mid-question and next interrupts the witness. The semicolon indicates that what starts as a declarative sentence becomes a question. The ellipses indicate that the witness trails off without completing a thought. But depending on the school and/or state from which a reporter graduates, a dash may be formed by two or three hyphens, depending on usage. The Court Reporter Manual of the State of South Carolina recommends two hyphens to indicate a change in thought and three hyphens to indicate an interruption. The Court Reporting Manual of the State of Maryland references only two hyphens, regardless of usage, but accepts the use of the em dash, or two joined hyphens, which is the default dash within some computer software programs.  In Ohio, the Montgomery County Manual of Transcript Procedures does not recommend ellipses at all, instead suggesting a dash to indicate an incomplete thought.

In addition to punctuation within a transcript, style guides often make different spelling recommendations. For example, while ‘alright’ has become accepted in casual text — the Oxford English Dictionary lists it as a secondary spelling — the National Court Reporters Association specifies the use of ‘all right’ in legal transcription. The Uniform Format Manual for Texas Reporters’ Records only recommends that spelling “…be consistent with generally accepted standards” and steers court reporters to The Elements of Style, The Gregg Reference, and The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which lists ‘alright’ as an accepted spelling.

With all of these variations, it’s easy to understand why a young lawyer might have questions about the punctuation and spelling used in the production of a deposition transcript. At CompuScripts Court Reporters, our court stenographers are encouraged to use The Gregg Reference Manual, Morson’s English Guide for Court Reporters, and The Chicago Manual of Style as authorities when producing transcripts. Our president, Deborah Dusseljee, is not only a Registered Professional Reporter, but also has acted as a chief examiner for NCRA testing. The staff at our Columbia, South Carolina, office is happy to answer any questions you might have about the production of your transcript.

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