# Theories and dictionaries
As you start learning about stenography, you'll hear the terms "steno theory" and "steno dictionary" thrown around. These are often very confusing for beginners, and there's a lot of confusion about the "best" theory.
A theory is a set of rules that determines how you form chords to write words. For example, do you write THOT, THOUGT, THAUT, or something else entirely to write the word "thought"? Your theory is what determines that.
A dictionary is simply a computer file that implements a theory. Because the scope of stenography is the entire language that you're writing in, the dictionary is often sized to how many words you may need to write.
Some stenographers write their dictionaries from scratch, slowly building it up as they encounter every new word. The dictionary that comes with Plover is made up of over 150 thousand entries in order to cover most of the English language. Anything that's missing, you can add to your own personal dictionary file.
If you're okay with this explanation, you can move on to the rest of the book. If you're still confused or want to understand more about this controversial topic, you can read on.
# Steno theories
A steno theory is a set of rules that determine how you use the steno keyboard to form sounds and words.
To draw from an analogy by Stanley Sakai, a self-taught professional captioner (opens new window): steno theories are like different martial arts. While most martial arts have a similar goal, i.e. defeat your opponent, they vary in their approach. There are broad categories like striking or grappling. Where a karate fighter would use striking moves like punches and kicks, a judo fighter would grapple and roll, bringing things to the ground. The methods are very different, but the goal is the same.
Just the same, steno theories all have the goal of using the steno machine to produce text. The approaches they take to reach that goal vary.
The base layout is consistent, but some theories are more memorization-heavy and others are more stroke-heavy.
As a result, you end up with three broad categories: stroke-intensive, memory-intensive, and a mix between the two.
The commercial Phoenix Theory (opens new window) holds tight to phonetic rules and therefore is easier to learn, but a little more stroke-intensive.
Finally, Commercial StenEd Theory (opens new window) strikes a middle-ground where the base theory is phonetic, but the most common words and phrases are available in shortcut form for speed's sake.
# Plover Theory
Plover Theory is what this textbook teaches.
It has its roots in StenEd, but leans slightly more to the memory-intensive side. The biggest difference between Plover and the commercial theories is that it's 100% free and doesn't require purchasing learning materials or the dictionary itself. The first time you open Plover, the dictionary is already loaded. Plain and simple.
# Steno dictionaries
A steno dictionary is a file that contains the mappings between keystrokes on the steno layout and the text that's produced. Plover's theory is stored in a dictionary file and it can be moved to other software should you decide to try other software in the future.
In addition to a theory dictionary, stenographers are always defining their own personal dictionary. Everybody's mind works differently and sometimes you'll have a mnemonic or perspective that suits you better than what the theory you're using provides.
With Plover's dictionary, you can also suggest changes and improvements (opens new window).
# Deciding which theory to learn
Most theories are still quite similar at the core. Many students find it easy enough to switch to a different theory even after a year of learning. Don't waste precious time and effort trying to choose a theory; just start learning stenography and you'll organically find what does and doesn't work for you. Some Plover learners have switched theories, but most are happy to stick with the default.
Even if you don't agree with everything that Plover offers out of the box, you can make customizations to the theory over time using your own personal dictionary.
There are loads of theories to choose from, but don't be overwhelmed by the choices. Just start with one and you can't really go wrong. My choice to select Plover's theory was mainly based on of the fact that it's free and open to everyone, as are its learning materials.
If you do want to research the best theory for you, I'd only recommend delaying that search until you've gotten over the initial hump of learning the steno layout and can write words with some confidence. At that point, you'll have a better vocabulary and understanding of what different theories offer. It's very hard to choose a theory that matches your preference when you don't speak the language that stenographers do.
Finally, I'll say that often the paid theories have an interest in you learning their theory: selling the dictionary and learning materials is part of their livelihood. There's nothing wrong with that, but keep it in mind when you read their claims, as they are a form of marketing.