Stenography is likely one of the most identifiable methods of recording the spoken word, as stenographers have been a familiar sight in courtrooms for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries. Stenography, in short, is the act of recording spoken words through shorthand using a stenotype machine.
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Shorthand certainly isn’t a new concept, and there have been countless shorthand systems developed. Depending on the language, a shorthand system may rely on symbols, which represent specific sounds, concepts, or letters, or it may rely on letters that have specific meanings. Some shorthand systems are even specially coded for a specific organization or company, thereby keeping sensitive information safe from outsiders.
Whatever stenography system is used, the ultimate goal is to record the spoken word verbatim. Stenography allows court reporters to record proceedings and events much quicker than they would be able to do using a standard keyboard. And, although handwritten stenography has been used for centuries, the use of a stenotype machine allows a court reporter to record information in a less laborious and more accurate manner.
Although today’s court reporters may use a variety of advanced technologies to record written proceedings, stenography still remains the most widely used form, both in and out of the courtroom.
What is a Stenotype Machine?
One of the first things people notice about a stenotype machine is that it lacks the number of keys of a standard keyboard. A stenotype machine, which dates as far back as the early 1800s, is a form of phonetic transcription that allows the court reporter to type in stenographic shorthand.
A standard stenotype machine has just 22 keys that are used to key out coded numbers, phrases, words, and sounds, which means that court reporters can ensure that all activity in the courtroom, down to a witness’s sobs, can be accurately memorialized. Although a key set of phrases, words, numbers, and sounds are used across the board, it is also common for stenographers to develop their own dictionaries for their work, which includes coded letter combinations that stand for common phrases.
Stenographers are generally capable of typing up to 300 words per minute (wpm) using a stenotype machine, thereby allowing them to accurately record even the most heated or fast-paced conversations.
Because the stenotype machine has just 22 keys, the stenographer often hits multiple keys at once. This process, which is called chording, may appear to be downright jumbled to an ordinary observer, but to the stenographer it makes perfect sense.
Traditional stenotype machines print the shorthand being produced by the court reporter onto a paper transcript. Although these machines are still used today, many of the more modern stenotype machines now use internal memory storage (usually in the form of flash drives), which allows the court reporter to run the recorded shorthand through a computer program, which then translates the shorthand and generates a transcript.
Further, stenotype machines are often directly connected to a laptop, thereby generating realtime transcription as the court reporter is typing. This type of technology is commonly used for realtime and broadcast captioning. Many of the newest types of stenotype machines have attached screens that allow court reporters to view the transcribed shorthand as they are typing.
The stenotype machine’s keyboard is designed to be used phonetically, with the stenographer typing from left to right. The left side of the keyboard is called the “initial” side, and the right side of the keyboard is called the “final” side.
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Working as a Stenographer
Stenographer jobs are highly skilled positions that require extensive training in shorthand, as well as the use of the stenotype machine and related technology. Individuals in court reporter programs therefore spend a great deal of time working on achieving both speed and accuracy in stenography.
In addition to stenography skills, court reporters must have an excellent grasp of the English language and of grammar, punctuation and spelling, and they must understand a large number of both legal and, sometimes, medical terms, particularly when working inside a courtroom. Stenographers often work in very fast-paced environments, and their work is held to very high standards.
Stenographer jobs may be found inside courtrooms, where these professionals are called upon to record everything from depositions to trials. Outside of the courtroom, stenographers work for private business, where there work is often used for important meetings and events. One of the most quickly expanding areas of stenography is in closed captioning services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Stenographers in this area may provide closed captioning services for both live and recorded television programs, as well as for live events, such as speeches, religious services, and civic events.
Stenographers may be employed by the court system, by court reporting companies, or they may work on a freelance basis. This career, which calls for a secondary educational program in court reporting and often state licensure and/or professional certification, can be a lucrative and rewarding one, particularly for individuals with extensive credentials.