# How steno works
I'm a programmer who uses stenography in my everyday work. Coworkers often come to my desk to chat or ask questions, not knowing that I use a steno machine to program and type. As I start typing in front of them, they'll watch as words and symbols appear in bursts, faster than they've ever seen anyone type before. Then, confused, they'll look down at my hands to see how I can possibly move that fast and see the reduced keyboard layout that I'm typing on, which always leads to more questions.
A steno machine only needs twenty-three keys, while normal keyboards have about a hundred. I wish I could capture everyone's face the first time they see a steno machine in action—that expression of shock and bewilderment.
When I first heard about stenography, I was amazed: stories of court reporters keeping up with multiple speakers in a courtroom, typing at a certified speed of 225 words per minute, faster than most people talk at 180 words per minute. Was that even possible? Did their school just teach them to type more quickly? Well, not quite.
Stenography is one of those things that's hard to understand just by watching, and even if I tell you the basics, it's a skill that takes months or years to learn. Just as someone can show you how hitting keys on a piano makes sounds, it will take a while before you understand the notes enough to play music or compose pieces of your own.
I'm going to break down, as best I can, the biggest differences between a keyboard and a stenography machine and try to demonstrate how steno can be so much faster.
# In a nutshell
On a normal keyboard, a typist hits individual keys to express individual letters as fast as possible to spell words. A stenographer, on the other hand, uses a steno machine to make "chords" by hitting multiple keys. Chords, much like the ones played on a piano, express sounds instead of letters and allow the stenographer to type at a slower rate to achieve the same word count, because those chords can express entire words and phrases. The result is about three times faster than traditional typing.
A stenography setup consists of a steno machine and steno software running on a computer. The machine can either be specially made for steno, or just an ordinary keyboard that supports n-key rollover (hitting all the keys at once.) The software that is most commonly used by amateurs is Plover (opens new window), which listens to what you do on the steno machine and then outputs keystrokes to whatever program you're using.
# Key concepts
Steno is completely different from traditional typing. Ordinary keyboards are very simple to use: you learn where the letters are, how to make things uppercase, and how to type symbols. Getting faster is a matter of hand positioning and practice.
Stenography takes months to learn and years to master. Let's look at some of the key concepts that make stenography special.
The steno machine's compressed layout is used to form chords, which loosely correspond to syllables. Steno feels a lot like playing a piano, and stenographers map between "steno speak" and "the English language."
When I say the word chord, you can imagine syllable.
Take a look at the steno layout in all its glory:
Obviously, a steno machine looks very different from a normal keyboard. There are so few keys (no "N" key), repeated keys (a "T" key on each side), and vowels at the bottom. Let's look at how this weird layout can be used to type really, really fast.
If a stenographer wants to type "cat", they sound it out. Different key combinations create different "sounds", so they press down all of the following keys:
Upon release, the keys are read from left-to-right (with vowels in the middle, splitting the two halves of the keyboard around the
* key) to produce the syllable
KAT which outputs the word "cat".
# Missing letters
Because there are so few (and repeated!) letters on the base stenography layout, missing letters are created using combinations of other keys. For example, no word starts with the letters
HR, so we can safely use the combination of keys
HR to express a different sound.
HR is used to represent
L by convention.
To type a word starting with an "L" sound, the stenographer hits the keys
HR. See if you can guess what word this is:
Upon release, the keys are read left-to-right to produce the syllable
LAF which outputs the word "laugh".
# Repeated keys
The reason that there are repeated keys on the layout is:
- The left side of the keyboard is dedicated to the beginning of the syllable.
- The right side of the keyboard is dedicated to the end of the syllable.
- In between we have the vowels keys .
A good example of where using the left or right half of the keyboard matters can be seen by comparing how we chord the word "start"…
…and how we chord the word "strat" (abbreviation for strategy):
If you're having trouble spotting the difference, it's simply pressing the
R key that's on either side of the layout. The left R represents the R at the beginning of a syllable (like in "rough" or "trap") and the right R represents the R at the end of a syllable (like "car" or "tarp.")
Because chords are roughly syllables, writing in stenography feels more like speaking than spelling.
In steno, all these words with different spellings are chorded with the same right-side keys because they all end with a similar sound:
Multisyllable words are chorded by stringing together multiple chords:
WARD becomes "reward".
Spelling is less of a problem because words just get sounded out:
LA MA→ llama
FA SIL TAIT→ facilitate
WENS DAI→ Wednesday
BA RA KU DA→ barracuda
To distinguish between homophones, the stenographer uses different vowel keys or adds in the "asterisk" key,
*, which is kind of like a wildcard:
Ever watched a professor save time by writing "w" instead of "with"? Have you ever written "brb" in a text chat instead of "be right back"? This concept is used extensively in stenography: a brief (short for abbreviation) is a shortcut to save time.
Single-key chords like
U map to "with" and "you", respectively. There are also briefs for very long words, so the chord for "particular" is a syllable that sounds like
PLAR; "remember" is
RER; "government" is
# Customizable dictionary
In the steno software, there's a giant "dictionary" that maps between chords like
LA MA and words like "llama." To write the entire English language, a stenographer's dictionary is often made up of over 100,000 entries. Don't worry, the stenographer doesn't need to memorize every single entry! Once they know how to sound-out words from syllables, they should be able to write any word they encounter.
The dictionary is customizable. As the English language develops and new words are created, the stenographer can add them to their dictionary. This is critical for anyone writing jargon, complex terminology, or programming languages.
Every stenographer has their own personal dictionary where they can add their own entries. If one stenographer were to try another stenographer's machine, the words would probably come out wrong because every dictionary is unique.
# Prefixes, suffixes, and root words
Compound words can be strung together thanks to a phonetic system of prefixes and suffixes. "Uncomfortable" could be written as "un" (prefix
UN) + "comfort" (root word
K-FRT) + "able" (suffix
-BL). "Antidisestablishmentarianism" could be composed from the prefixes "anti" and "dis"; the root word "establish"; and the suffixes "ment", "arian", and "ism".
Finally, if a word isn't composable from prefixes, suffixes, and root words and the stenographer doesn't have that word in their dictionary, they can fall back to one-letter-per-chord, which is called fingerspelling.
# Automatic capitalization and spacing
Another way that stenographers save time is by not needing to capitalize and space apart words themselves. For the most part, the steno software knows that if you end a sentence with a period, the next word will be capitalized. It knows that "Los Angeles" and "Tom" always have capital letters. Of course, there are ways to get around this behavior. For example, there is a chord that forces the next word to come out lowercase, regardless of whether it's a proper noun or not.
When someone makes a typo in stenography, it's not a misplaced letter, it's a misplaced sound.
It can make for some pretty comical mistakes.
When typing "ground" on a normal keyboard, you might accidentally type "gronud" (swapping u and n), but a stenographer might accidentally write "frowned"! The only difference is the stenographer accidentally used an "f" sound instead of a "g" sound.
Another mistake is an accidental key in a chord. This could turn "remember" (
RER) into "rear" (
Using the wrong sound can have devastating consequences: one time (opens new window), I tried to chord
HER TAJ for "heritage" but I hit
HER TIJ and got "her to the best of my knowledge."
If the stenographer types a chord that isn't in their dictionary, say
ST-RB, then the output will be "ST-RB" so that they can see their mistake.
Luckily, fixing a typo is as simple as tapping the
* key to erase the last chord.
You might think that it's hard to input symbols if everything is sound-based. But the opposite is true! Stenographers can create complex sequences of symbols, keyboard shortcuts, movement keys, and emoji through chords.
There is a plugin for Plover where it converts the last word you wrote into an emoji. My "convert-to-emoji" stroke is
KAT MOEJ → 🐈
One strategy that is used for symbols is to omit vowels from the root word. When there are no vowels and no asterisk in a steno chord, that's shown with a dash (
It's possible to create briefs for multiple symbols at once. For example,
SHR*UG maps to
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in my dictionary.
There are also strategies for arrow keys, keyboard shortcuts, and everything else you might usually use a keyboard for.
# Interactive example
You can play with the following example to see a quote from Harriet Tubman written by a stenographer at different speeds.
What Steno Looks Like
Notice how the stenographer only hits a couple chords a second but hits crazy high speeds?
Here is a version of that quote with each word on top of its corresponding chord syllables:
Notice that words and chords don't all map one-to-one.
Chords can be as little as individual letters or syllables as we sound out a word:
DREEM ER→ dreamer
PAISH ENS→ patience
There are shortcuts (briefs) to get longer words:
Sometimes, a single chord maps to a phrase:
SKP-T→ and the
F-RT→ for the
Some chords are based on their shape on the keyboard and have nothing to do with sounds:
TP-PL→→ . (period)
KW-BG→→ , (comma)
- This chord is used because it's all the way on the left side of the keyboard. This allows it to be combined with other keys to make phrases like "and the" (see above.)
Rather than typing 165 characters, the stenographer made 34 chords to write this quote. Given that a professional stenographer can make chords around 3.5 times per second, that would mean it would take around 10 seconds to write.
The average typist, typing 60 words per minute or 5 characters per second, would take about 33 seconds.
Our stenographer in this scenario clocks in at 204 words per minute, making them 3.4 times faster!
# Where it's used
Machine stenography was originally developed in the late 1800s for taking down spoken word, but has evolved to be used as a general keyboard replacement.
It is used professionally in courtrooms, and as an accessibility tool for realtime captioning and transcription. A certified court reporter in the United States must be able to write 225 words per minute. Human speech averages around 180 words per minute. Most people type around 60 words per minute, but there are exceptional typists (opens new window) who can type upwards of 150 words per minute.
Court reporting courses usually last at least 2 years and require 225 words per minute to graduate. They are full-time programs and are very intense.
But stenography is used in an amateur fashion by hobbyists, writers, programmers, and office workers. It can completely replace normal keyboard usage. For self-taught stenographers, it usually takes six months to a year of casual learning to match their normal typing speed. Getting faster on top of that comes with practice.
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of how steno works and why it's so fast. Steno uses chording to multiply the power of a smaller number of keys than a normal keyboard. A chord on a steno machine can be represented by a syllable-like sound and it can map to words, letters, symbols, phrases, and more. Learning how to use stenography to type starts with understanding how to use those "syllables" to create chords.
Even though making chords on a steno machine is slower (around 3-4 chords a second) than a typist on a keyboard (around 5-10 keys a second), by focusing on sounds rather than letters, a stenographer gets more out of each chord and comes out on top.
This book, as part of the Open Steno Project (opens new window), aims to bring the art of stenography—the art of speaking through your fingers, The Art of Chording—to everyone.
If you're fascinated with how steno works and you want to learn more, you're in the right place! This website is a free, open source textbook that aims to teach steno to anyone and everyone. The Open Steno Project tries to keep software and learning materials free, while supporting the development of affordable hardware options. Download Plover today (opens new window) and learn how to use it by moving on to the next lesson.
Before computers existed, stenographers wrote to "paper tape" which only captured which keys were hit on the machine. After transcribing, the stenographer would have to go back and convert their "notes" into text, very much like pen shorthand. Nowadays, translation from key press to text is instant. ↩︎
The reason I keep saying "syllables, loosely" is that the text representation of a chord is often unpronounceable. For example,
N-Lfor "until" has no vowel;
SDAOINfor "design" has an unpronounceable
SD; and the chord to backspace the previous chord is just the
*key which can't be pronounced. ↩︎
Some of the strokes in this lesson are for illustration purposes only. We wouldn't really write barracuda as four syllables, though nothing is stopping you from doing so. In this textbook's theory, barracuda could be written
BAR KAOU DA. ↩︎
The natural extension of abbreviating written words is pen stenography, or written shorthand. Written shorthand is very similar to machine stenography in that you use a phonetic representation of sounds instead of spelling out words. However, written shorthand is a little slower (150WPM) and requires transcribing your shorthand notes to convert them back to longhand. ↩︎
The reason that stenographers end up with very personalized dictionaries is because even though we often learn a pretty similar "theory", we build up our own habits and preferences. To read more about theories, see Theories and Dictionaries. ↩︎
Just because we could compose "antidisestablishmentarianism" from prefixes and suffixes (
A*INT DIS STAEB *MT A*IRN *IFM) doesn't mean we would. It's a great word to have a brief for in order to save a lot of time (1 stroke instead of 6). In Plover, the brief for antidisestablishmentarianism is
SLA*IRMwhich is pretty arbritary as far as briefs go. Another long single-stroke brief in Plover is
SFRAJ→ supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. ↩︎
Fingerspelling is a slow fallback option, only about 50 words per minute for a professional. To fingerspell "stop" the stenographer would stroke
Typos in stenography are referred to as misstrokes. Stenographers often save recurring misstrokes so that repeated mistakes come out properly. For example, I often mistakenly think that the word "relevant" is "revelant". I set my machine so that when I chord
REV LANT, it outputs "relevant." ↩︎
See the variety of uses that learners have in the Open Steno Project community survey (opens new window) ↩︎
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