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

Refer to the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., and the Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary, though we do not adhere strictly to them in all instances.

Descriptive Indicators


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

Agreeing and disagreeing

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

Pauses/interruptions/breaks in thought

  • Use "—" (em dash), not "…" (see below for ellipses) and not  "--" (double dashes)
  • No spaces around em dash (…yellow—the color—not blue…)
  • To make an em dash (—): ctrl-Alt-minus key (PC) or shift-option-dash (Mac)
  • If one speaker finishes another's sentence:

SPEAKER A:  So then I—

SPEAKER B:  —ran outside?

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

Nonspoken gestures

  • Bracket in text
    • [points to painting], [claps]




  • 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.


  • Use brackets for information added or deleted after the interview is recorded.
    • Format: [additional information or ellipses + space + en dash + initials of narrator or interviewer]
    • No need for initials if information is 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)

 Adding information

  • Add only if essential to understanding context and not easily available to search.
  • [Inaudible.] or [inaudible], as with laughter section
  • [ph], not (ph); don't use [sp] (since it's spoken, not written).
  • 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.
  • Don't 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/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 (generally uppercase; see list), 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; museum or academic department, committee, or course; prize (cap if proper name (Pulitzer Prize); lowercase if generic (gold medal)); see various lists below.

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

Letters used as words

  • S shape (cap, no ital, no quotes); X number of turns
  • Spelling out names/terms in narrative: use caps with dashes: Smith, S-M-I-T-H

Words used as terms

  • The so-called X (no special treatment)

The term  "X" (quotes; differs from CMS)Onomatopoeias

  • Flexible, depending on context, but often italics to set apart: Boom!
  • Not necessary for casual speech such as "blah, blah, blah"



Spelling out vs. 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).
  • 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.
  • Don't include "th" (11th) in full dates (dates that include year).
  • 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."

Time and temperature

  • Spell out whole numbers under 10 (one o'clock) unless exact time:
    • 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


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


  • If spell out number (whole, under 10), spell out symbol: four dollars (but $7.50).
  • If use numerals, use symbol: $5,000, $8 million ("[$]8 million" or "eight million" if "dollars" is not spoken).


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.
    • Exs: September 7 [1935] (no commas around year) or [September 7, 1935] (no comma after the year).
    • Then it would be: "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 ex: "[Dear Jacob,] It's been…"
    • But if we were only inserting the name "Jacob," it would be: "Dear [Jacob], it's been…" (comma outside the bracket)
    • or "… 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.
    • Ex: 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.
    • Exs: [It was a Thursday.] 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.
    • Ex: I said yes. [. . .] The door opened. (CMS 13.58) Note spacing: #[.#.#.]#


  • Use the serial comma: a, b, and c.
  • 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.


  • 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 (don't 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. (See CMS 17/6.25.)

Special constructions

  • It was, what, 1997?
  • It was—what—1997?
  • The, quote, unquote, celebration (no quote marks)
  • Comma after question mark or exclamation point only when following a title or quote containing a question mark/exclamation point, or if absolutely grammatically necessary, but not with dialogue ("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")

Foreign words and phrases

  • If in Merriam-Webster 11th, treat as any other word.
  • If not, italicize.
  • Flexible for individual cases.


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