Friday, June 18, 2010

Steno 101, Lesson Zero

Steno 101: How to Do It
Steno 101: Lesson Zero
Steno 101: Lesson One
Steno 101: Lesson Two
Steno 101: Lesson Three
Steno 101: Lesson Four

Audio version

Before I start teaching you how to use that nice colorful chart I posted a while back, I'm going to talk about some of the fundamental principles of machine shorthand. Later I'll get into the nitty gritty, but for a first introduction, I just want to give a quick overview on what it takes to turn words into a code that a computer can turn back into words.

The Steno Machine

Today's steno machine is descended from a machine first invented by Ward Stone Ireland in 1910. A steno machine has anywhere between 24 and 37 keys: 22 capital letter keys, 1 to 4 asterisk keys, 1 to 9 number keys, and sometimes 2 optional accessory keys. The asterisk and number keys are all identical to one another; their numbers only vary for ergonomic reasons.

A chord made up of one or more of those keys (also known as a "steno outline") can represent a single letter, a syllable, or an entire word. The letters on the left hand side represent the beginning consonants of words, the keys operated by the thumbs represent vowels, and the letters on the right hand side represent the ending consonants. The asterisk key, struck by itself, represents a command to delete the last stroke from the record. When struck with other letters, it's a sort of wild card, and can be employed for several different purposes, all of which I'll get into later.

Each letter appears in a strictly defined order within a chord, and chords are always read from left to right. When writing down steno outlines for the benefit of colleagues or students, stenographers often employ a sort of pseudosteno, writing the English letters they mean to represent, rather than the actual keys they would press on the machine to write the chord. So the word "braving", which would properly be written "PWRAEUFPBG", would be written "BRAIFNG" in pseudosteno. The stenographer would know to translate the "B" to "PW", the "I" to "EU", and the "N" to "PB" when writing the outline on the machine. Because pseudosteno is much easier for beginners to read, I'm using it to write all the examples in this first lesson. Then in the second lesson I'll start teaching you those "B" to "PW" and "I" to "EU" mappings using the chart.

Principles of Steno

Audio version

Steno is commonly considered a phonetic writing system, though I would really call it more of a phonetic-mnemonic system. Each stenographer has a wide degree of latitude in determining how to write each word, and the criteria they use are fairly arbitrary, as long as the outlines are memorable and easy to write. Most one-syllable words are written phonetically, unless they contain letters out of steno order (STKPWHRAO*EUFRPBLGTSDZ -- more on that in the next lesson) or if they conflict with soundalike words or phrases. Soundalike words are usually differentiated by altering vowels, taking advantage of spelling differences, or inserting the asterisk key in the less common outline.

Resolving homophone conflicts -

Bear: BAER
Bare: BAIR

So: SO
Sew: SWE

Gram: GRAM
Graham: GRA*M

Multisyllabic words will sometimes be written phonetically, syllable by syllable (often with schwa sounds omitted) but will sometimes be truncated, inverted, or mashed together. When you see a slash between two steno outlines, it means that the word or phrase is made up of multiple strokes. A steno machine registers a stroke as complete when all the previously pressed keys have been released, so the slash indicates that the stenographer should lift all their fingers from the keyboard and then write the next chord in the outline.

Syllabic -

Harmonica: HAR/MON/KA
Bungle: BUNG/*L
Dreadful: DRED/FL

Phonetic, shwahs ommitted -

Committed: KMITD
Leverage: LEFRJ
As much as: SMUCHS

Inverted -

Greater: GRAERT
Destroy: SDROI
Really: LAOERL

Truncated -

Prejudice: PREJ
Superintendant: SUPT
Accident: SDENT


Audio version

So far most of the outlines I've shown you fall under the category of "more or less phonetic". Another important tool in steno is the brief, also known as the "abbreviation", "short form", or "arbitrary". Briefs are simply non-phonetic mappings of steno outlines to English words or phrases. For instance, the phrase "from time to time" could be written out:


(Four strokes)

Or it could be briefed:


(One stroke)

Either one will translate as "from time to time" if they're defined that way in the steno dictionary, but the second one is shorter and easier to write. The trade-off, of course, is that "FRIMT" doesn't really sound much like "from time to time", though it's got a hint of mnemonic resonance to hang your hat on. Briefs are counter-intuitive and sometimes hard to remember, but very useful. I'll be saying a lot more about how to invent and use them in subsequent lessons.

The Hyphen

Audio version

In the steno outlines I've shown you so far, you've seen capital letters, slashes, and asterisks. The only other character used in writing steno is the hyphen. Like the slash (and unlike the capital letters or the asterisk), the hyphen is a guideline to writing, and does not actually appear on the steno machine. It represents the middle of the keyboard and is used to differentiate keys written with the left hand from those written with the right hand. A letter with a hyphen after it, such as "T-", is written with the left hand; a letter with a hyphen in front of it, such as "-T", is written with the right hand. Some letters appear only on one or the other side of the keyboard, so it's not always necessary to use a hyphen when writing steno outlines. In this lesson I only use it when it's required for clarity.

Common Short Words

Audio version

Very common short words are usually briefed rather than written out, because the fewer keys a stenographer presses at a time, the less energy they expend and the less likely they are to make a misstroke. English uses words like "it", "the", "is", and "will" so often, it makes sense to write them with only one letter.

Outlines and briefs for common short words:

Can: KAN
Can: K-

Will: WIL
Will: L-

It: IT
It: T-

The: TH*E
The: -T

Is: IS
Is: S-

With: WI*T
With: W-

Be: B*E
Be: -B or B-

If: IF
If: F-

Steno Theories

Audio version

All English language steno theories are derived from the original Stenotype theory devised by Ireland when he invented the machine. Some modern theories depart radically from that first theory. Some differ very little. Theories tend to differ most in their treatment of briefs and how explicitly they write suffixes and vowel sounds. The controversy is often stated as "brief-heavy" versus "stroke-heavy", though it gets a bit more complicated than that. I'll probably write an article summarizing the main points of prevailing theories at some point, but in the Steno 101 series, I'm going to teach you the theory I use, which I adapted from NYCI theory, in turn descended from StenEd, one of the most popular and mainstream modern steno theories. Because I believe that steno dictionaries must be constructed by their stenographers to be truly useful, and that rote memorization of other people's systems is of limited utility, I'll try to leave plenty of jumping-off points where people can adapt the theory to their own purposes. In subsequent lessons, I'll also explain some of the inconsistencies in my dictionary, how they originated, and possible ways to improve them.

This is getting to be pretty lengthy for an introductory lesson, so I'll just mention one more element of stenographic writing, and then we'll try to put everything together.

Word Boundaries

Audio version

The steno machine saves an enormous number of keystrokes by eliminating the space bar. Word boundaries in steno are implicit rather than explicit, but the steno software is able to insert appropriate spaces remarkably well without needing to be told where to put them. In certain cases, however, the stenographer needs to be careful about word boundaries and work around possible overlaps. Misplaced spaces are known as "boundary errors", and they're usually resolved by dictionary tweaking, theory modification, or, in rare cases, brute force. If worse comes to worst, a stenographer can manually insert a space between strokes, though there are usually better ways to work around the problem.

Some examples of boundary errors with and without homophone conflicts:

We're going to the play right now.

He almost makes the play write itself.

The playwright is coming to the rehearsal.

In order to resolve a potential word boundary issue, the stenographer needs to weigh the likeliness of a boundary error against the trouble of figuring out how to avoid one.

"Play right", "play write" and "playwright" from the sentences above occur commonly enough in English that a means must be found to differentiate them. But what about the word "catalogues"? Ordinarily it would be written in pseudosteno:


A smart stenographer would recognize that the components of that word are words in their own right -- "cat" and "logs" -- and try to construct hypothetical sentences in which they'd appear next to each other. For instance, you could say:

"That cat logs 12 hours a day down at the Post Office, catching mice."

It's possible to do, but it seems like a bit of a stretch, doesn't it? The stenographer will probably conclude that the phrase "cat logs" is not common enough to worry about, and put "catalogues" in their dictionary as KAT/LOGS.

Another example:


"From across the banquet hall, he could see the enormous pie nearing the dessert table as its six muscular bearers staggered beneath its bulk."

"This is a pioneering development in the field of pastry transportation technology."

Based on your knowledge of English, is the phrase "pie nearing" likely to come up in conversation as often as the word "pioneering"? No? Then setting the outline "PAOI/NAOERNG" to "pioneering" is probably safe. Still, this kind of probability check needs to be done whenever defining a multisyllabic word in a steno dictionary, and the decisions are not always as clearcut as "catalogues" and "pioneering".


Audio version

You've learned about pseudosteno, differentiating soundalikes, syllabic and non-syllabic outline construction, using single letters for common words, and avoiding boundary errors. Let's put it all together. I'll write a paragraph in English and then show you how I'd render it into pseudosteno.

Clifford held his breath as he waited to hear the hiss of the elevator. He checked his pockets for the fifth time. Still empty. He might belong to the dorkiest echelon of the Intelligence Squad, but he was determined to do his duty. There it went. He tiptoed rapidly out into the hall and dove through the doors as they opened. He let his breath out with a slow and shaking whoosh as his MagnaShoes engaged. Carefully, gingerly, he clomped up the wall and onto the high steel ceiling. Blood rushed to his head. The elevator's doors closed and he felt himself ascending. When they opened again, he would be ready. His fingers twitched above the cloth keypads mounted on his thighs, ready to write down everything they heard over the next 8 hours. He'd do Steno Batallion proud.

778 Keystrokes


171 Keystrokes

BLUE = Briefed Short Words
GREEN = Punctuation
PURPLE = Multisyllabic Words With Schwas Omitted


  1. This is fantastic! I wish our theory class had started with that clear of an introduction. From now on, if I meet anyone interested in steno, I'm pointing them straight to this entry. It's the perfect intro to understanding steno!

  2. Alice: Thanks so much! That's wonderful to hear. My eventual goal is to write a complete steno theory tutorial and post it for free online. I'm really glad you think that I'm on the right track.

  3. I love the Otis Space Elevator! I only hope, though, that the Van Allen Hilton is well-insulated.

    Mirabai, in the blog post, you mention the terminology of a "stroke-intensive" theory. I think that StenEd--which is what I'm currently learning--is often called stroke-intensive, since inflected endings are taken in a second stroke.

    I am also finding StenEd to be stroke-intensive in that I believe its inconsistent policy for handling homophones is going to give me stroke sooner or later.

    I've been studying your dictionary that comes with Plover, and I'm thinking of just letting further diligent study of that be my theory.

  4. Thanks for posting a tutorial! I'll see how much I can pick up from reading your tutorial and dictionary.

  5. Tony: Sten Ed is considered one of the "stroke intensive" theories, but, in my opinion, that's not actually a bad thing. The more briefs you use, the faster you're gonna be. Yes? Yes. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you should spend most of your time memorizing other people's briefs. In terms of inflected endings, I completely agree; fold them in whenever possible. DigitalCAT has a feature that recognizes if you insert a -L, -G, -D, -S, or -Z into a word and translates the ending accordingly, which is pretty much the only thing I miss now that I've switched over to Eclipse. Plover will definitely get that feature at some point. But I learned how to write the word first, with the ending as a second stroke, and naturally started folding them in as I got faster and more comfortable doing it. I think every dictionary should have a huge number of words written out more or less phonetically, and then every stenographer should start inventing their own briefs as they find a need for them, rather than trying to memorize huge long lists of them right away when they're just starting to learn theory. Maybe it's just me; I know some people love getting briefs from other sources. But when I tried memorizing ones made up by other people, I always forgot them. When I made up my own during the course of a job, I usually remembered them, because they were linked in my brain with the moment I invented them and the context in which I needed them. I talk a little more about the process in this article:

    I admit that probably the weakest part of both my personal dictionary and of Sten Ed in general is the inconsistency with regard to homophones, but I'm not sure there's an easy answer to that one, considering the vicissitudes of the English language. What do you think is a better solution?

  6. CH: There's going to be more theory lessons coming soon! This is just an introduction. I'll delve into the guts of the language in the next installment.

  7. Hi Mirabai!: "I think every dictionary should have a huge number of words written out more or less phonetically, and then every stenographer should start inventing their own briefs as they find a need for them, rather than trying to memorize huge long lists of them right away when they're just starting to learn theory."

    That sounds right to me. I know one thing for sure: if I can't pronounce the brief, it probably won't stick with me.

    I started out this idea of steno with a very conservative thought: I wanted to learn the right, standard theory, the least exotic theory possible. Now I realize there is no such thing, and that's probably inevitable and good. Everyone has a different, personal theory. I was talking to one real-time writer who was working at a conference I attended several weeks ago. I was dying to know which theory she used, and what advice she could give me. I thought she'd be a strong partisan of one theory or another. To my surprise, she told me that she graduated from school a long time ago, and wasn't even sure if the theory they taught had a name! (she was a really good writer, by the way, as I could tell by sitting right next to my deaf friend and nosily watching the real-time).

    "I admit that probably the weakest part of both my personal dictionary and of Sten Ed in general is the inconsistency with regard to homophones, but I'm not sure there's an easy answer to that one, considering the vicissitudes of the English language. What do you think is a better solution?"

    Since I wrote my original comment about this, I have done a lot of thinking, and I am starting to feel that, as you say, these irregularities are going to be somewhat unavoidable. Let me point out one thing that I think is a source of confusion for me. AOE is the ordinary way in StenEd to represent the 'long E' (/i/) sound. Then there's the alternate way in the case of conflicts: AE. The problem is that this is already in use for the 'long a' (/ei/) sound. So we have this list:

    hail: HAIL
    hale: HA*IL
    heal: HAEL
    heel: HAOEL

    This is reasonable, so I thought, the next list should be parallel (but it's not):

    lain: LAIN
    lane: LAEN
    lean: LAOEN
    lien: LAO*EN

    Of course, I realize that this is a very small group of words, and I think I can reconcile myself to learning them the way you learn a small list of high-occurrence irregular verbs in a spoken language.

    I had an idea, though. What about making *E the alternate long E? Then I could let AE only be the alternate long A. The problem could be in words that need the asterisk for -ST. What do you think, Mirabai?

    I think learning theory will be WAY easier for me once my Evolution arrives and I'm working in the 21st century.

    Sorry for the really long comment. We need a listserv! :)

  8. The thing with making *E the long E is that I often find myself using the asterisk to distinguish consonants far more than vowels. So, for example, the word "letter" s HRET/*ER. The word "leather" is HR*ET/*ER. If *E was my long E, that would make it "leeter". Not impossible, of course, but I think it's sort of confusing. Switching around asterisks based on the probability of the word is more complicated and less consistent, but I think it also allows for more flexibility. Of course, you're the one who has to use your dictionary, so there's no reason why you can't just do it the way you want and then switch it later if you don't like it.

    Also, we do need a listserv. You're right. I just made one. Gonna go post about it right now.

  9. Is there an error in paragraph 3:

    ...the letters on the left hand side represent the ending consonants.

    shouldn't it be _right_ hand side?

  10. D'oh! Thank you for catching that. Gonna fix it right now.

  11. Thanks! I learned! I had no idea so much of steno was building the dictionary. That's the part I need to do more of with voice captioning. (although, sitting back at church and watching the results of a steno doing 5-6000 words in 90 minutes at 99.5+ accuracy was pretty dang amazing!)

  12. Great post! One question though:

    I'm confused by the hyphen. . .

    Sometimes it shows up, and sometimes it doesn't. When I'm looking through the dictionary file included in Plover, there is, for example, '-P' 'P-', and just plain old 'P'. I understand the hyphen differentiates between hands, however, why isn't it always associated with a P? How are there P's that don't have the indicator?

    Also, how then does Plover match up outlines if the hyphens aren't consistent?

  13. Hey, Justin! This is a convention that varies with the steno software used to read the dictionary. Plover uses Eclipse's conventions, meaning that the hyphen is only made explicit where necessary. If there's a P on the left and then a vowel and a right-hand consonant, the hyphen isn't considered to be necessary, so it's left out. On the other hand, if there's a P and then something like an R, the hyphen is necessary so that you know whether it's PR- or P-R. Other software such as DigitalCAT just puts the hyphen in all the time, without considering those rules. So when Plover reads a DigitalCAT dictionary, we have to put it into DigitalCAT compatibility mode. Really good question. I hope the answer more or less makes sense.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. In your example both his and hiss -> HIS
    probably an oversight? Or is there another distinction?

  16. Thanks for spotting that, Anonymous! You're totally right. "hiss" should be HI*S. Gonna go fix that now.

  17. Why not write "his" HIZ?

  18. I was taught to write periods as
    and commas as
    and question mark as
    SKWR is "J" and "justice"

    I saw you did periods and commas differently in your example up there somewhere.

  19. testing -- it says tag is not closed and now won't let me post message -- what does that mean?

  20. testing

    having some trouble with tags

  21. You made a comment that offline writers don't make a lot of money,as opposed to realtime. Did you mean offline captionists, like doing programs that are prerecorded? thanks!

  22. I was taught FRPBLG for "nch"

    and TSDZ for final "th"

  23. How do you write question mark? thanks!

  24. when you were talking about it being hard to make a lot of money working "offline" (in the Raw Speed section), I see now that you meant transcription by typing, not offline captioning. sorry for the confusion.

  25. Mirabai,
    I watched your vid and wrote a comment on youtube, and tried to read on in this blog.

    Here's one thing I notice. You try to share as much knowledge as possible, but it actually turning me off to see this in the introductory course, when I haven't yet tried Plover. It makes it seem like a huge effort and even have a question how on Earth the original mechanical steno writer could work.

  26. By the way, how do you write foreign words with unusual combos like "Haag" or "Gehl"?

  27. Yeah, when we make the steno tutorial video game, it will be more broken down and self-paced than this giant bolus of information. This is more sort of a way for me to get down all the stuff that needs to be taught to a beginner learning steno; turning it into a more digestible set of lessons will be the next step.

    Unusual words are sometimes just fingerspelled, if they're only going to come up once or twice. Otherwise, you can define them in a specific dictionary (such as when they're a proper name that will be used frequently for one job but probably won't come up again), or if you think you'll be using them on a regular basis, you can differentiate them from other words using combinations of the asterisk plus different vowels. So, for instance:

    HAG = hag
    HA*G = Haag
    or HAEG = Haag

    GAIL = Gail
    GAEL = gale
    GA*IL = Gehl
    G*EL = Gehl

    This is pretty arbitrary, and basically just comes down to the whim of the stenographer on any given day.

  28. I have zero background in steno but you did a phenomenal job of explaining its theory and application in a concise and straight-forward [as possible] manner. As far as I can tell (which isn't very), steno is its own language of sorts, with its own unique linguistic history and development, and I commend your efforts in both keeping it alive and making it available to us common folk. You are a naturally gifted teacher and I look forward to learning more about this skill from your site.

  29. Thanks, Anonymous! Steno 101 is just the beginning. We're currently working on a much more comprehensive and user-friendly steno curriculum, so stay tuned!

  30. Thank you for the tutorials. I am endeavoring to become a scopist and before taking the scopist training, I thought it would be beneficial to learn to read steno. There are very few resources on the internet to learn to read steno. I appreciate your efforts.

  31. If there are D, F, G and L keys on a steno machine, why are there chords to represent these simple letters?

    D= TK
    F= TP
    G= TKPW
    L= HR

  32. TK is D- on the left side, while -D is D on the right side.
    TP is F- on the left side, while -F is F on the right side.
    TKPW is G- on the left side, while -G is G on the right side.
    HR is L- on the left side, while -L is L on the right side.

    The left side is used for the beginning consonants of the syllable, while the right side is used for the ending consonants of the syllable, generally with a vowel sound in the middle.

  33. Steno 101 is officially obsolete. The best resource to use is Learn Plover: