Oral History Program Style Guide: Section 2: Treatment of Text

Refer to the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, though we do not adhere strictly to these resources in all instances.

Jump to: Descriptive Indicators | Information | Word Treatment | Numbers | Punctuation and Syntax | Video Captioning | Art Movements and Styles

Descriptive Indicators

Reflexive speech (ums, like, etc.)

  • Not necessary to transcribe each instance. Should include as appropriate to convey speech style, stalling, or significant pauses. We aim to include about 75%, but the narrator may have a different preference.


  • [Laughs.] Period inside the bracket if outside sentence.
  • [laughs] No period inside the brackets if within sentence.
  • [They laugh.]  NOT [Laughter.]
  • No "chuckles," etc. Do not editorialize.

Agreeing and disagreeing

  • Mm-hmm [affirmative] or uh-huh [affirmative].
  • Mm-mm [negative] or Unh-uh [negative].
    • Period after bracket if stands alone
    • No period inside the brackets if within sentence.
  • Okay, not OK.
    • Okayed for past tense

Other Sounds

Nonverbal sounds are indicated in brackets and should be included especially if they are acknowledged by those present (interview participants or others in the interview environment).

  • [coughs]
  • [clears throat]
  • [yawns]
  • [cries], [whispers], [yells], [throws voice], [blows raspberry]
  • [telephone rings] – use when phone rings once.
  • [telephone ringing] – use for sustained ringing in background.
    • [iPhone rings], [iPhone ringing].
  • [alarm sounds], [alarm rings] – depends on sound.
  • [Cat meows], [parrot talking], [dog barking]

Pauses/interruptions/breaks in thought

  • Use "—" (em dash), not "…" (see below for how to use ellipses) and not  "--" (double dashes).
  • No spaces around em dash.
    • Example: yellow—the color—not blue.
  • If one speaker finishes another's sentence:

NARRATOR:  So then I—

INTERVIEWER:  —ran outside?

  • Try to keep expressions of interruptions to these:
    • [Audio break.]
    • [Cross talk.]
    • [Side conversation.]
    • [Recorder stops, restarts.]

Affected or Imitative Speech

  • When imitating a specific person: [imitating X] where X is the name of the person being imitated. Offset the words/phrase in quotes.
  • When affected speech, put the affect in brackets: [in a posh British accent] or [in a Southern drawl].[1]

Unspoken gestures

  • Bracket in text.
    • [points to painting], [looking at book], [claps], [snaps fingers].




  • Use ellipses to indicate portions of the audio that have been deleted from the transcript.
  • Bracket ellipses.
    • Type three dots, with spaces between dots: #[.#.#.]# (or end-sentence punctuation if within sentence).
    • If the sentence ends before the ellipses, period goes in normal place, then begin #[.#.#.]# (CMS 17/13.53ff).
  • No need for ellipses if the deletions are "uh" words ("you know," "I mean," "like," etc.), brief false starts, or self-corrections.
  • Identify bracketed ellipses as described below.
  • In legacy transcripts, ellipses may have been used to indicate pauses.


  • Use brackets for information added or removed after the interview is recorded.
    • Format: [additional information or ellipses + space + en dash + initials of narrator, interviewer, or –Ed.]
      • Use –Ed. if added or deleted by AAA
    • Bracket without initials if small (one- or two-word) change differs from the recorded version, unless it is important to indicate speaker made the change.
  • Correction of simple tense, gender, article, etc., that would not be audibly discernable need not be bracketed.
  • No need for brackets if an "[inaudible]" is replaced with the originally spoken word(s).
  • Remove home addresses from the body of the transcript; use [. . . –Ed.] or [narrator's home –Ed.].

Adding information

  • Add only if essential to understanding context and not easily available to search.
  • [Inaudible.] or [inaudible].
  • [ph]; do not use [sp] (sp) since it's spoken, not written.
    • Put brackets around all words that are being guessed at, with (ph) before closing brackets.
    • Example: [a quick brown fox (ph)].
  • [sic] (CMS 13.61) Use sparingly.
    • Italicized in brackets. When appearing alongside correction can include in same bracket. 
    • Example: S-P-O-H-M. Clay Spohm [sic Spohn –Ed].
  • States should be abbreviated if inside brackets [Cranbrook, MI].
  • New York (the city) can be [New York, NY] or [New York City]; the latter is especially useful if the discussion is clearly in the city.
  • Do not add full names of persons, places, or titles of exhibitions, works, or publications unless necessary, i.e., obscure, needed to distinguish from a similar one, wouldn't make sense, or would be unsearchable without it.
  • Book citation: only as needed for reader to search, usually just author or title or year of publication; at most: [Author. Title. City of publication: publisher, year of publication], but usually [Title, year].
  • Exhibition info: as above; at most: [Title. Museum, city, dates (or "traveled," years)].


  • Spell out only when necessary (if unclear in context).
    • ACC [American Craft Council]
    • NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts]


  • Leave ampersand in if considered the proper name:
    • Victoria and Albert Museum, the V&A (exceptions can occur).


  • Italics
    • Exhibition
    • work of art (including installation, performance)
    • book
    • movie
    • television or radio show (series)
    • play
    • opera
    • major musical composition
    • long poem published as a single work
    • blog title
    • computer game
    • ship (USS Enterprise)
    • newspaper ("the" is lowercased, Roman)
  • Quotes
    • Poem
    • song
    • lecture
    • single episode of television or radio show
    • individual blog entry or section
    • web page entry or section
    • academic course (only if context calls for it)
  • Uppercase no quotes or italics:
    • art movements (see list under Art Periods and Movements)
    • computer program
    • building of architectural significance
    • series (related group of artworks or regularly recurring exhibition or event)
    • poster
    • T-shirt title
    • study or cultural program
    • regular column (in magazine, journal, newspaper, or website)
    • historical event
    • lecture series
    • conference
    • formal academic department/position/course title (lean to lowercase)
  • Lowercase, but can be uppercase if critical to clarity of narrative or used in a formal title.
    • teaching or administrative position
    • formal academic department/position/course title (lean to lowercase)
    • museum department
    • committee, or course
    • prize - capitalize if proper name (Pulitzer Prize); lowercase if generic (gold medal) (see Preferred Spellings for Frequently Encountered Words and Terms for specific examples)

Award titles commonly encountered

  • Fulbright Program (various awards within)
  • Guggenheim Fellowship
  • MacArthur Fellowship
  • NEA grant (certain specific grants are capped)
  • Rhodes Scholar/Scholarship

Techniques and materials

  • Capitalize if proper noun: NuGold, Damascus steel, ColorCore.
  • Lowercase if general technique or style: hishii, kumboo, niello, netsuke.
  • Use "karat" instead of "K," unless actually spoken as "K."


Word Treatment

Ethnicities, national groups, and people

  • Names of ethnic and national groups are capitalized. Associated adjectives are also capitalized. 
    • African American (no hyphen)
    • American Indians
    • Asian
    • Asian American (no hyphen)
    • BIPOC (if spoken)
    • Black (The lowercase black is a color, not a person: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.)
    • Brown
    • Chicano/Chicana/Chicanx
    • Hispanic
    • Indigenous (adj.: capitalize this term when referring to original inhabitants of a place; proper noun.)
    • Indian
    • Latino/Latina/Latinx
    • Native American
    • Native American
      • Native (Capitalize when using it as a synonym for "American Indian and Alaska Native." adj: lowercase.)
      • Tribe, Tribal (capitalize only when referring to a specific tribe.)
    • Negro
    • white (lowercase; see Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia: Anti-Racist Description Resources[2] and New York Times style guide[3].)


  • Do not transcribe dialect.
    • Example: dropping the -ing; transcribe the full word. (drinkin' becomes drinking).
    • Exception: If it's in Merriam-Webster keep it as is (gonna, wanna, nother, and 'em with a preceding verb are all fine). But this may depend on the narrator's wishes. (see: "Talking White": An anti-oppression view towards transcribing Black narrators by Alissa Rae Funderburk[4]).
  • Do transcribe AAVE (African American Vernacular English).

Letters used as words or letters

  • S-curve, L-shaped room (capitalized; no italics, no quotes); X number of turns (CMS 7.67).
  • Individual letters and combinations of letters of the Latin alphabet are usually italicized. (CMS 7.64)
    • Examples: "An accent on the z." "a capital W" "How many ts in that last name?"
  • Spelling out names/terms in narrative: use caps with dashes: Smith, S-M-I-T-H.
    • Some speakers us the word "capital" when spelling as a clarification. Transcribe the word "capital," but put dashes around it to maintain consistency.
      • Example: M-A-C capital-L-E-capital-S-U-E-U-R (for the name Mac LeSueur).
      • Example: capital-M-C-capital-C-A-U-S-L-A-N-D (for the name McCausland).


  • Flexible, depending on context, but often italics to set apart: Boom!
  • Italics are not necessary for casual speech such as "blah, blah, blah."
  • This differs from CMS.


  • Keep as spoken. Do not alter.
  • When this euphemism/phrase is spoken in this way: "the N word."

Content Warnings

  • Use this note in the Preface to the interview as the third paragraph:
    • Some language in this transcript may be offensive. It is presented as it exists in the original audio recording for the benefit of research. This material in no way reflects the views of the Archives of American Art or the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Use this note in the transcript near the passage, preferably in between speakers. Use as many times as needed throughout the transcript.
    • [Some language in the following passage may be offensive. It is presented as it exists in the original audio recording for the benefit of research. This material in no way reflects the views of the Archives of American Art or the Smithsonian Institution. –Ed.]

Words used as terms

  • The so-called X (no special treatment).



Spelling out versus numerals

  • Spell out numbers under 10, including ordinals and street names and numbers (One Fifth Avenue).
    • Exceptions for some technical terms, such as "cone 2"
    • When a transcript contains numerous listings of dimensions, then numerals may be more practical.
    • If the speaker says, "3 or 400," then use "3[00] or 400" for clarity.
    • Use 9/11 (terrorist attacks) and 9-1-1 (emergency call).
    • Numerals are okay for numbers under 10 if the full date is spoken.
  • Spell out numbers that begin a sentence, unless it is a year.
    • "1934 was the year I went to Spain." (or '34)
    • Hyphenate (non-year) numbers such as "Thirty-four" when beginning a sentence.
  • Do not include "-th" "-rd" "-st" "-nd" after numerals
    • Example: 11th, 3rd, 1st, 2nd in full dates (dates that include year).
    • Exception: Okay to use in street names.
  • Leave out the word "the" if spoken between month and day.
    • Example: "April the 3rd, 1964" becomes "April 3, 1964"
  • Use en dash for date spans, but comma if narrator is casting around for a date: "It was around 1967, '68; I'm not sure."

Fractions and dimensions

  • Spell out the words "inches" or "feet," etc.
  • Use hyphens for exact fractions ("one-half"), but not inexact fractions ("a third").
  • Numerals for numbers using decimals, "1.5 inches" (as spoken).
  • While we would normally use "eight by 10 inches," if a transcript uses dimensions frequently, it could work better to use all numerals, even "8x10."
  • Only add dimensional units ("[inches]") if necessary for clarity, and even then, not in every instance.
  • Hyphenate fractional numbers when they are adjectives: "a four-and-a-half-year project," or used as noun (see Age section), but not when an adverb: "She was four and a half years old." "I was sixteen and a half."

Time and temperature

  • Spell out whole numbers under 10 (one o'clock) unless exact time:
    • Example: two o'clock or 2 a.m. (as spoken), 2:15.
  • Spell out the word "degrees" for temperatures.


  • Spell out numbers under 10, except decimals.
  • Spell out the word "percent."


  • 1950s, or '50s
  • 19th century (hyphenate when an adjective: 19th-century painting).
  • early '50s, mid-'50s, late '50s, '72–74 (use en dash for year spans, unless "through" is spoken; no apostrophe needed after dash for ending year in span).
  • 1972 or ['7]3 (if they just say "three"); 2004 or ['0]5
  • Years spoken without the 0 (instead of 1907, it sounds like 19 7). Write these instances out as 1907 (not 19[0]7).


  • "in his 30s," "in his mid-30s."
  • "She was two years old," but "She acted like a two-year-old."
  • "He was 30-something."


  • Spell out the symbol for whole numbers under 10: four dollars (but $7.50).
  • Use a symbol with numerals for sums over one hundred dollars, with or without "dollars" spoken: $5,000, $8 million. (CMS 9.24)
  • If the speaker says, "$3 or 400," then use "$3[00] or 400" for clarity.
    • Example: "I believe, that the one on the interior building was about $8[000] or 9,000."
  • Cents: Same as dollars regarding numerals and using ¢ symbol after the numbers. (CMS 9.20)
    • Example: ten cents, 75¢
  • Thousands are sometimes represented by K.
    • Example: $150K
  • Non-US currencies are handled the same way as US currencies. (CMS 9.21, 9.23)


Punctuation and Syntax

Punctuation within and around brackets 

  • See CMS 6.98 and especially 6.103.
  • If bracketed material is a simple addition of information, such as name, date, location, translation, etc., do not add a comma, semicolon, or colon with the brackets; okay to use within if needed.
    • Example: September 7 [1935] (no commas around year).
    • Example: [September 7, 1935] (no comma after the year).
    • Example: "He moved to [Cranston] Rhode Island for the sea air." Even though, if there were no brackets, it would be "He moved to Cranston, Rhode Island, for the sea air."
  • If the material is added as part of the speaker's own words, and requires punctuation to correctly form the sentence, then punctuation may be added as needed.
    • CMS example: "[Dear Jacob,] It's been…"
    • Example: But if we were only inserting the name "Jacob," it would be: "Dear [Jacob], it's been . . ." (comma outside the bracket).
    • Example:  “. . . in the old days [flying by the seat of our pants –RPW]." Even though, if the final phrase were unbracketed, it would be preceded by a comma. In this instance, the insertion is treated as a parenthetical phrase.
  • A question mark, exclamation point, or close quotes precedes a closing bracket only if it belongs solely to the added material; they follow it if they belong to the hosting sentence.
    • Example: I told him, "You come back [here]!"
  • Similarly, a period precedes the closing bracket only if the entire sentence stands alone inside brackets; otherwise it follows.
    • Example: [It was a Thursday.]
    • Example: I saw Bob Brown at the end [of the day]. He was on his way to Boston.
  • If bracketed ellipses are entirely self-contained outside of the surrounding sentences, they do not require a period.
    • Example: I said yes. [. . .] The door opened. (CMS 13.58) Note spacing: #[.#.#.]#.


  • Use the serial comma: a, b, and c.
  • Use commas between repeated adjectives when serving as intensifiers
    • Example: "It was a large, large show."
  • Do not use commas when words are repeated to convey naturalness or purity.
    • Example: "Her work was photography photography"
  • See specific usage sections.

Recalled or paraphrased dialogue

  • No need for quotes if internal dialogue or generalized or casually recalled.
  • Set off with comma and cap first word even if not using quotes.
  • Adaptable to individual cases.

Passages Read Aloud

  • Put dialogue in quotes
  • May add [reading from text] (or similar) in brackets before the reading


  • Only one space after a colon
  • Capitalize after colon only when:
    • for a direct question
    • introducing more than one sentence or question
    • for speech or dialogue

Compound words or expressions

  • Generally, do not hyphenate for adverbs—never for adverbs ending in "ly."
  • Hyphenate expressions such as "day to day" only when they are used as adjectives.
  • Generally, for techniques such as "pit fire" or "salt glaze," hyphenate when used as adjectives or verbs (see Preferred Spellings list).


  • Should be changed to something that makes sense if spoken (usually a hyphen) since you can't speak a slash, unless the speaker actually says "slash." Flexible for individual cases.

Plural names and plural possessives

  • "They had many Giottos"—no apostrophe
  • Prince Charles's, singular possessive ('s)
  • The James' children, plural possessive (')

Avoiding run-on sentences

  • Two complete sentences separated by a conjunction require a comma.
  • Short compound sentences with closely related meanings, especially if simultaneous or sequential actions, can go without a comma, unless a comma would aid in understanding the sense.
  • When there is one subject with two verbs ("She raised animals and drove a tractor"), which wouldn't require a comma, if there are multiple objects that need to be separated for clarity, go ahead and add a comma: "She raised cats, dogs, and hamsters, and drove a tractor."

Appositives and interjections

  • Interjections should be contained within commas.
    • Oh, my God,
    • It is spoken, rather than written, prose.
    • "He is, like, a very relaxed person." (Though we may omit some "like"s if overused.)
      • When "like" is used to estimate an amount, it does not need commas: "There were like 50 people there."
  • The year of a given full date should be enclosed in commas.
  • A state listed after the town should be enclosed in commas.
  • "et cetera" is no longer considered an appositive and need not be contained in commas. It should be treated as any other list item.
    • Spell out; do not use abbreviation.
  • "Jr." or "Sr." after a name no longer requires enclosing commas.
  • "So" at the beginning of a sentence is usually being used conversationally as a simple conjunction and does not require a comma. If used as an interjection or parenthetical (usually to change the subject), then use a comma.

Restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses

  • Restrictive (dependent) introductory clauses (containing subject and verb) should be set off by commas.
  • Dependent clauses at the end of sentences present special consideration—determine if the clause is restrictive individually. (CMS 17/6.25.)

Special constructions

  • It was, what, 1997?
  • It was—what—1997?
  • Quote, unquote: Transcribe all spoken words, but quotation marks around the word/s the speaker notes.
    • Example: The quote, unquote, "celebration"
    • Example: The quote "new world" unquote
  • Air quotes/scare quotes: Do not mark the gesture in brackets. Do put the word/s in regular quotes.
  • Comma after question mark or exclamation point only when following a title or quote containing a question mark/exclamation point, or if grammatically necessary, but not with dialogue
    • Example: "Are you here?" she asked (CMS 17/6.124–26)
  • dark-type (slang, not a word)
  • academic-wise (slang, not a word)
  • The thing is, I never went there. (Comma stands in for "that")

Words and Phrases not in English

  • If in Merriam-Webster, treat as any other word.
  • If not in Merriam-Webster, italicize.
  • Flexible for individual cases.


Video Captioning

ID speaker

  • Full name in all caps with colon for first instance of speech by each person in video file.
  • Thereafter, use last name, all caps, with colon, for each conversational change of speaker

Two speakers

  • Full name in all caps with colon for first instance of speech by each person. Thereafter, use last name, all caps, with colon, for each conversational change in speaker

Reflexive speech (ums, like, etc.)

  • Can include in captions as appropriate to convey speech style, stalling, or significant pauses. Not necessary to transcribe each instance.

Feedback words, agreement, disagreement

  • Affirmative, use: Mm-hmm or Uh-huh
  • Negative, use: Mm-mm or Unh-uh
  • Okay, not OK

Incomplete sentence hanging phrase, parenthetic statement

  • End with an em dash (—). No space before or after em dashes (—).

Significant pause, break in thought

  • End with an em dash (—). No space before or after em dashes (—).


  • End with an em dash (—). No space before or after em dashes (—)

Two speakers with abrupt interruptions

  • For very quick exchanges within the same caption, use hyphen with no space. Resume using last name, all caps with colon, when a speaker resumes at length.
  • Can also use [Cross talk.] or [Side conversation.] if content is unintelligible or insignificant.

Video or Teleconferencing

  • How to represent the distortions, glitches, or audio lag that plague teleconferencing platforms
    • [digital distortion]
    • [digital echo]

Sounds other than talking, sound effects

  • Bracket in text
    • [points to painting], [claps], [snaps]
  • Laughter
    • [laughs] when in a sentence
    • [Laughs.] when stands alone
    • [They laugh.]
    • No chuckles, giggles. Do not editorialize.

Affected or Imitative Speech

  • When imitating a specific person use [imitating X] where X is the name of the person being imitated. Offset the words/phrase in quotes.
  • When affected speech, put the affect in brackets: [in a posh British accent] or [in a Southern drawl][5]

Other Sounds

  • [cries], [whispers], [yells], [throws voice]


  • [inaudible]


  • Text should be viewable for at least three seconds.

Line division on screen

  • Captions should not exceed more than three lines of onscreen text. One or two lines is suggested length.

Placement & timing

  • Lower third of the screen but should move if they are blocking any text or other important information. 
  • Centered
  • In a translucent black box


Art Periods and Movements

In general, capitalize specific art movements; lowercase if the word is being used descriptively rather than referring to the specific historical period or movement.

  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Art Deco
  • Baroque
  • Beaux Arts
  • Color Field
  • Conceptual art
  • Constructivists
  • Cubism
  • Early American
  • Minimalism
  • Modernism
  • Neo-Geo
  • Old Masters
  • Op art
  • Photorealism
  • Pop art
  • Postmodernism
  • Renaissance
  • Surrealism


  • abstract
  • contemporary
  • medieval
  • modern
  • realism

If referring to a person who is an Abstract Expressionist artist, you would capitalize the A and the E. (Example: Lee Krasner was an Abstract Expressionist painter.)


[1] Zdenek, Sean. Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture. https://readingsounds.net/chapter8/

[2] Antracoli, Alexis A., Annalise Berdini, Kelly Bolding, Faith Charlton, Amanda Ferrara, Valencia Johnson, and Katy Rawdon. Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia: Anti-Racist Description Resources. October 2020. https://archivesforblacklives.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/ardr_202010.pdf

[4] Funderburk, Alissa Rae. "Talking White": An anti-oppression view towards transcribing Black narrators. https://www.alissaraefunderburk.com/workshops-and-courses

[5]Zdenek, Sean. Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture. https://readingsounds.net/chapter8/