How do court reporters take down the spoken word at speeds that sometimes exceed 260 words per minute, using a machine that has only 24 keys? The steno keyboard was created in the early 20th century, and its key placement design has remained essentially unchanged since that time:
You may notice in the illustration above that there are multiple keys for some letters. Since so many words begin or end with S or T, there’s a key for both S and for T on each side of the keyboard. And since vowels usually appear in the middle of words, the vowel keys are situated in the middle of the keyboard. When steno machines spewed paper tape, each letter would appear on the court reporter’s paper tape in its own unique position.
Letters that don’t appear are instead represented by combinations of other letters. In English, when we see a word containing the letters P and H together, we immediately think of the F sound. Steno writing expands that concept on steroids: TPH for the N sound, KWR for the Y sound, BGS for the X sound, and so on.
One big difference between a steno machine and a typewriter is the ability to depress several steno machine keys simultaneously. In this manner, a syllable, a word or a series of words can be “written” on the machine in one stroke, like playing a chord on a piano, which enables court reporters to capture speech much more quickly than typing.
Also, steno is a phonetic system, so there’s no need to spell out each individual letter in a word. Can you read the following sentence?
It says, “You are a star,” and contains some of the abbreviations commonly used in texting.
But most steno strokes are much more complex than that. Consider the following steno strokes on the left below and their corresponding translations on the right:
In the example above, you can see some of the combinations of letters that stand for other sounds. You might also observe that speaker identification (e.g., Question and Answer symbols) as well as punctuation are also denoted by letter combinations. Commonly-used phrases, like “State your full name,” are abbreviated in one stroke, while less common or multisyllabic words, such as proper names and technical terminology, may be written one syllable at a time. While the steno strokes look incomprehensible at first glance, steno theory and skill are burned into reporters’ brains through hours and hours and hours of practice both reading and writing steno.
“Why not just audio-record proceedings and have them typed later?” you may be thinking. But if you’ve ever tried to transcribe an audio recording, you know that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to clearly hear what was said when ambient sounds interfere, like coughing, chair noises or HVAC systems. Transcripts that contain a large number of “inaudible” notations can be rendered ultimately unusable. And since transcription would take place after the fact, there’s no option of asking a witness with heavily-accented speech to repeat what he said for clarification. In addition, it would be extraordinarily difficult to find a particular question or answer to play back from earlier in the proceeding. There’s also no way to sort out individual speech when several people talk simultaneously, which commonly happens. Because the court reporter is an impartial participant in the proceedings, he or she can take control of the situation then and there to assure an accurate record is being made.
The problems outlined above assume the recording equipment is working correctly. Countless cases across the country have had to be retried, at great additional expense, due to mechanical malfunctions with recording equipment or poor training of court personnel.
Court reporting requires an extensive vocabulary as well as the precision of a concert pianist. It takes a lot of dedicated work to become proficient enough to pass a state licensing exam (commonly dictated at 225 words per minute), and the dropout rate of court reporting students exceeds 90%. Small wonder that it can be not only a fascinating profession but also a lucrative career for those who master the skill and work hard.