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(This question was inspired by comments in a similar – but not duplicate – question.)

Suppose I'm tasked with transcribing a physics lecture, and the instructor says that the answer is
“42 km/s.”

In this case, it's important to note that the instructor did not say the words, “kilometers per second”, but instead said (phonetically), “kay em per ess”. As the transciber, I want to somehow capture this subtle distinction – that is, I want it clear that the letters were spoken, not the words.

I can think of a few possible ways to do this. One is to spell out the letters phonetically:

“...and that gives us our answer of 42 kay em per ess” 1

Advantage: How the answer was enunciated is clearly communicated.
Disadvantage: The resulting form is ugly as muck.

Another option is:

“...and that gives us our answer of 42 km per s”

Advantage: It's easy to read and pleasing on the eye.
Disadvantage: It's ambiguous; the reader might assume the lecturer said “kilometers”, but I've taken the liberty to abbreviate that as "km".

I think I might prefer this third option:

“...and that gives us our answer of 42 k-m per s”

The hyphen might clue the reader in that the letters were spoken, and it would prevent us from having to write out really ugly phonetics, such as “em pee aitch” for MPH.

I suppose the most practical answer would be to include some clarifying remarks in a preface to the transcript that explains the conventions that are used – that is, something along the lines of:

When abbreviations are used, those are denoted with a period (e.g., “mm.” for “millimeter”). If the period is omitted, you can assume the speaker pronounced the abbreviation letter for letter (e.g., “mm” was pronounced as “em - em”)

Here's my question, though: Are there any standard ways to handle this problem?

As a footnote, this problem seems particularly vexing when you consider how plurals might be used. For example, a lecturer might pronounce three meters as “3 ms” (phonetically, “3 ems”), but the abbreviation might look like three milliseconds. Even though apostrophes in conjunction with abbreviations are falling out of favor, I suppose this might be an exception. According to the accepted answer here, it seems like this may be an acceptable use of an apostrophe (3 m's).


1 (Let's assume we are allowed to write numerals and numbers, and do not have to write the answer out as forty-two.)

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    Are you referring to this?: Kilometers per hour : the unit symbol is km/h or km·h−1, however, it is also commonly referred to as kph in English-speaking countries. – user66974 Jun 14 '15 at 11:17
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    Why is it important to transcribe what the lecturer said rather than what he meant? Specifically, is the possible confusion around "3 ems" better than a normal written abbreviation? – TimLymington Jun 14 '15 at 11:19
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    JR, you raise an interesting point where the question at hand is: what's the best way to write it down when your challenge is, in particular, to accurately capture what was spoken. Additionally there is a related let's say artistic challenge in prose dialogue - say my character is an Aussie who speaks about "losing ten kay gees", how should I write that in the book? 'Bluey said once again, "I gotta lose ten kgs, mates."' or 'kg' there, or 'kaygees' there, or 'k-gs' there? it's tough. – Fattie Jun 14 '15 at 11:25
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    I am having difficulty understanding why somebody would want to do this. It's very hard understanding spoken math, which is why professors write equations on the board. For example, if you say "one over root two pi sigma e to the minus ex squared over two sigma squared" (what a professor might say if she had the equation written where people could see it), it's impossible to tell where the parentheses are, and thus ambiguous (some indication would be given by the intonation in speech). An equation wouldn't tell you exactly what the professor said, but you would know what she meant. – Peter Shor Jun 14 '15 at 11:50
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    It just seemed like a good question to me, something that deserved more than extended comments in a question that asked about something else. – J.R. Jun 14 '15 at 11:59
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You do it in a footnote.

*When {brilliant scientist} gave this lecture, he did not say the words "kilometer" or "hour" but said the letters of the abbreviation. "k" "p" "h". The [#] is used to indicate where he took a sip of water; [$] indicates a brief crotch-scratch; extended periods of crotch-scratching are indicated so: [$$$].

  • I like the idea of putting letters in quotes. That could work. As for your other symbols, if the scientist had a bad case of jock itch, anyone glancing at the transcript would initially assume he was grubbing for research dollars. ;^) – J.R. Jun 14 '15 at 15:07
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    @J.R. Yes. I should have found a less ambiguous symbol. [ȹ] perhaps. – TRomano Jun 14 '15 at 15:13

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