Commas can make or break transcription (or the case of the $10 million comma)

Commas can make or break transcription - ATC Blog
Oakie, Oakhurst’s loveable mascot, seen here seemingly succumbing to exhaustion with a world-weary smile and an absent gaze. Unknown whether overtime was a factor.

In which we ponder how an antiquated Maine labor law, a class-action lawsuit, and a controversial bit of punctuation can make the national news.

Recently, my wife forwarded me a New York Times article about a lawsuit in my home state of Maine. This isn’t a common occurrence, for how often does one really lend much thought to labor disputes in their hometown? But this one had a special flavor to it, that speaks to the risk inherent in subpar transcription.

The article, by Daniel Victor,  “Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute,” presents a somewhat worst-case-scenario for the Oxford comma (or serial comma if you’re not prone to well-ripened narcissism).

Three truck drivers are suing Oakhurst Dairy for more than four years’ worth of unpaid overtime. The state’s overtime rules indicate that any work performed after 40 hours in one week, must be paid out at 1.5 times the normal rate. There are of course exceptions, and the lawsuit, and the $10 million at stake, hinges upon one missing Oxford comma.

An explanation of the Oxford comma (from Oxford Dictionaries no less) for those curious.

In effect, the Oxford rule states that a comma should precede the conjunction in the final list item. To use a common example of when the Oxford comma might be prudent:

Oxford comma: I would like to thank my parents, Oprah, and the Pope.

No Oxford comma: I would like thank my parents, Oprah and the Pope.

So you may be asking: how exactly could a punctuation decision in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual possibly affect the transcription of my project?

To be brief: Transcription is a subjective interpretation of a recorded medium. You are asking someone to write down not only what was said from a recorded file, but you are asking them to punctuate the content precisely.

Does your transcriptionist understand the Oxford comma? The comma splice? Does your transcriptionist understand that people don’t speak grammatically with any regularity and how best should they approach applying grammar in an interview when it is not regularly utilized?

These are all important questions you should consider when looking for transcription, and they only scratch the surface. Who do you trust with your transcription?

It turns out, if you’re following the curious case of the Oxford comma, the US Appeals Court sided with the plaintiffs in their decision. In short, as law reads:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

And as Victor points out:

If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court on Monday sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor. It reversed a lower court decision.

In other words: Oxford comma defenders won this round.

These little issues in a transcript can add up to confuse, obscure, or otherwise completely change the meaning and intent of an audio or video file. While it is unlikely that such an error will potentially result in the loss of millions with your case trending on The New York Times, it can result in subtly, or even wildly, inaccurate transcripts.

Which rather defeats the purpose, doesn’t it.

Update (February 2018)

The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers and this is how the law reads now:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.



2 thoughts on “Commas can make or break transcription (or the case of the $10 million comma)

    1. I’m really glad to hear it, Silke. Is there any topic in particular you’d like us to tackle in the future?

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