Stan’s Quick and Dirty: How Stenography Works



STAN: Ever wonder how court reporters can keep up with blazingly fast dialogue in the courtroom and get every word no matter how fast the testimony whips by? Or maybe while watching the news at the gym, wondered how live closed captioning works. Is there really someone behind the scenes typing that all out? Welcome to Stan’s Quick and Dirty Video on how steno works. Steno, which is short for stenography, also known as “shorthand” is an abbreviated symbolic writing method that increases speed and brevity of writing as compared to a normal method of writing a language with the ultimate goal being the ability to write as fast as someone can speak. Back in the olden days, this was accomplished by means of a written shorthand system like Gregg or Pitman in which series of lines, curves, dashes, and dots represented sounds, which had to later then be transcribed back to conventional text by the original stenographer. But before I get into modern stenography, and how it differs from the keyboard you’re probably sitting in front of right now, let’s establish some baseline speeds. The average typist on a qwerty keyboard can go anywhere from 40 words per minute to 60 words per minute, with the fastest possible speed maxing out at about 120 for short periods of time. The average English speaker usually speaks at a rate between 180 words per minute, all the way up to up to 300+. Professional stenographers can generally hold a constant rate of 200-300 words per minute with the world record for machine steno in English at 360 words per minute. That’s 6 words per second. So why exactly is steno so much faster than qwerty? Let’s get one thing straight. Steno is not typing. Typing is when you get one character of output per one press of the keyboard, whereas in steno, you press multiple keys at the same time to make a steno outline, which must then go through a translation process to produce readable text. This is why court reporters call the act “writing” and not “typing.” Modern steno machines have varying form factors, but utilize the same underlying layout. The keys correspond to phonemic values rather than letters and certain combinations of keys are used to substitute for sounds that are not present. Multiple keys can be pressed simultaneously like a chord on a piano but do not get mixed up because they always appear in a pre-determined order in a chord, left to right, top to bottom. Before computerized steno machines, these chords would come out on a long strip of paper with each row corresponding to a stroke or chord. The stenographer would then have to go back and transcribe these notes back to regular text. So if I were going to write the phrase, “Hello, how are you doing today?” I would first write the stroke for “hello” which is H-L, and then how, which is HOU, RU, which is “are you,” TKAOG for “doing,” TOD, which is “today,” and KW-PL, which is my stroke for the question mark. One misconception about steno is that the stenographer just mindlessly types what they hear while the computer figures out the rest. But actually, a clean transcript is dependent on the user’s ability to correctly recall and execute the shortcuts they’ve predefined in their personal dictionary. So if he or she forgets how a certain word is defined, or has poor finger placement, it comes out completely wrong. So that’s my video on how steno works. You can visit my blog at if you want to read my steno ramblings or follow me on Twitter at @stanographer to see what I’m currently up to. If you’re interested in maybe picking up steno for yourself, check out for more information on how to download Plover and get started learning steno. I hope this was helpful. Thanks for watching!



MUSIC: Weirdough – Remedy

Author: dhobson