Transcription Errors

Transcription errors differ from auditory errors in that they do not result from mishearing what has been said, but rather from mistyping or writing it.

We transcribe phrase by phrase, rather than word by word, which can lead to various cognitive mistakes. Following are some of the most common errors along with suggestions on how to avoid them.

Transpositions (or Transportations)

One of the most common transcription mistakes is the transposition of one element with another, generally involving numbers or code letters. A number like 534 becomes 354, or the postal code M5P 1C8 is transformed into M1P 5C8. Notice, however, that the mistake is less likely with the postal code because the numbers and letters alternate so that similar elements, such as two numbers or two letters, never appear beside each other.

Numbers which have the same number of syllables, sound alike, and fall on the same “stress” of the overall number string are more likely to be confused with each other than numbers which don’t share the same characteristics. Consider this number: 174,589. You could read it as “one hundred and seventy four thousand, five hundred and eighty nine.” When transcribing, however, you’re more likely to view it as a string of numbers. In that case, you will probably stress the numbers like this: 174,589. Now notice that it is easier to make a mistake by changing it to 174,985, than changing it to 194,587. That, of course, is because the 9 and 5 not only sound alike, but also fall on similar stress points in the number string.

With words, the transposition often occurs when the order could make sense either way, and transposed words aren’t necessarily adjacent. Word transpositions are especially common when the source has phrased something in an awkward or non-standard fashion which we “correct” during transcription. For instance:

“On the other hand, the defense lawyer insisted that the judge did have cause not to block the motion.”

“On the other hand, the defense lawyer insisted that the judge did not have cause to block the motion.”

Tip: For numbers, if you can develop the habit of reading numbers (in your head) as a kind of musical scale, you can improve your accuracy. The lower the number, the lower the note, so 864 would sound somewhat like “Three Blind Mice.” Using that technique, the tune of a number like 174,589 would be very different from the tune of 174,985. Problem is, it requires a musical mind.

External interpolations

These errors occur when an outside force imposes an element during the transcription. We all know how hard it is to count money when someone nearby is reaming off numbers. The same confusion happens with words.

Tip: There’s not much to do about this except transcribe in a quiet environment whenever possible — which probably isn’t often.

Semantic correlations

On the audio tapes of October 18, 1961, recorded during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy referred to the use of nuclear weapons as “the final failure.” The transcription, however, which was the source used by many later historians, has him calling it “the prime failure” (Stern, 2009). The error in this case was not one of mishearing the word, but of an unconscious correlation between concepts. “Prime” refers to an absolute, as does “final.” The transcriber simply transposed the one word for the other.

In such cases, the words being confused, while not sounding particularly alike, must share essential features. Had either word in this case, for instance, contained a hard consonant sound such as “k” or “g,” the difference would probably have been enough to keep the correct word in the transcriber’s mind. But while a similarity may exist, this is not essentially an error of confusing two different sounds, but of confusing two similar concepts.


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