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How Does a Stenograph Work?

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Creating legal transcripts with a stenography machine

A stenograph machine, sometimes mistaken for a stenotype, is simply a machine that writes shorthand. The stenograph is used by court reporters, who specialize in the field of Court Reporting.

Why would anyone use a stenograph instead of using a regular QWERTY keyboard?

The answer relies in this:

typistAn average person can speak anywhere from 180 to 200 words per minute. Now the average individual can type on a QWERTY keyboard (otherwise known as an alpha numeric keyboard) at approximately 33 words per minute and can hand-write about 31 words per minute from memorized, text and 22 words per minute while copying.

Even a professional “typist” can type up to 50 to 80 words per minute. So already you can see a problem here. The average human cannot use a QWERTY keyboard to record someone’s words per minute. In order for an average human to write words per minute, we need a shorthand machine, like a stenograph machine.

The average certified stenographer can type anywhere from 200 to 250 words per minute. Some really good stenographers can even type up to 300 words per minute. To this day, the world record for this is 375 words per minute.


The Stenotype Keyboard

transcriptions-services-machine-2Unlike a QWERTY keyboard, the stenotype keyboard has only 22 keys. On a stenograph machine, the words can be individually reduced to one letter or a combination of the letters. Take example the words “Way” and “Weigh”; the words are indifferent but the sound is essentially the same. Regardless of the spelling of the word on the stenograph machine, the sound is essentially the same. This simplifies the process of recording any spoken words.


To help streamline the process of recording spoken words even more, the stenographer uses a technique on the stenotype machine known as “chording”. If you have ever played a musical instrument, this would make perfect sense to you. When you hit a series of buttons or strings, you essentially create a sound; the same process is done on the stenograph machine.

A chord can stand for a syllable, a word or even an entire phrase. Each chord entered into a stenotype machine creates one line on the steno paper. Each row of steno paper contains 22 columns in which one character will be printed for each key on the keyboard and are printed out in this order from left to right: STKPWHRAO*EUFRPBLGTSDZ. If you would like to see a complete listing of the chord characters you can view the chart here:

How Does It Work?

In order for us to understand how it works, we need to understand what the keys are. Here is an image of what the stenotype keyboard looks like:

Stenotype Keyboard Layout

Stenotype Keyboard Layout

Your first assumption might be, there aren’t enough keys to make all the words out there. Keep in mind about the process of chording we talked of earlier. Here’s an example to show you how it can world in action.

If you hit these keys all at once: TPEURB, it would spell the word “Fish”. The TP is the “F” sound, EU is the “I” sound and finally the RB is the “sh” sound.


There have been a number of techniques, such as “briefs”, which are chord abbreviations and have been used to optimize the stenographer’s typing performance. However, each stenographer has his or her own techniques to optimize their performance. Essentially, each stenographer has his or her own “traits”.

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