What Is a Stenographer? Everything You Have Wondered About Shorthand Typists

A stenographer is a person trained to type or write in shorthand methods, enabling them to write as quickly as people speak. Stenographers can create lasting documentation of everything from court cases to medical conversations. This is obviously useful in many legal settings, but the skill is also used for live closed captioning on television or captioning for hard-of-hearing audiences at events. 

What Does Stenographer Mean?

The word “stenography” is older than any of our modern stenotype keyboards or machines. It comes from the Greek “steno” meaning narrow and “graphy” meaning writing. “Narrow writing” described systems of shorthand, back when conversations were transcribed by hand. Hence, what does “stenographer” mean? Simply, a shorthand writer. 
Modern-day stenographers use shorthand typing machines called stenotypes. These machine marvels allow stenographers to type at rates exceeding 300 words per minute. In comparison, an average speaking speed is about 150 words per minute. This incredible rate of writing lets a high-quality stenographer keep up with complex conversations, even when multiple people may be speaking in a court or event setting. 

How Does Stenography Work?

Today’s stenographers use stenotype machines that enable shorthand writing. These stenotype machines work by typing in syllables rather than letters. Writing a word like “calendar” only requires 3 strokes instead of the 8 we use on a regular keyboard. However, in order to create complex and varied sounds as quickly as possible, each stroke on a stenotype will typically involve multiple keys. By pressing three keys at once (called a “chord”), they can make the syllable “cal”, then “en” and “dar”. In the time it takes us to type three individual letters, a stenographer can type an entire word with the help of a stenotype machine. 
Because of this condensed form of typing, a stenotype keyboard has only 22 keys. This is opposed to normal computer keyboards, which have between 70 and 105 keys. The stenotype can be so condensed because of the chord system — by combining keys you have hundreds of combinations to make different syllables quickly. 
Of course, typing in phonetic syllables does not create your typical English sentence — it does not even include spaces.  Older versions of the stenotype created lists of complex characters or punches in a paper that had to be interpreted later and written into an understandable English translation. Thanks to modern technology, stenotype machines can automatically compare the syllables written to a standard or custom dictionary and output the corresponding English. The computer adds spaces and interprets words, and while not always perfect, gets better with each iteration of stenotype technology.

What Is the Difference Between a Stenographer and a Court Reporter?

This is fairly simple: all court reporters are stenographers, but not all stenographers are court reporters. Stenographers can offer services as medical transcriptionists, realtime TV captioners, as well as in numerous accessibility fields (think transcribing voice calls for deaf users). These stenographer services are widely varied in difficulty and importance of accuracy. 
Court reporters are specialized, highly trained stenographers. Their extra training and certifications make the documents they create admissible as evidence in court. For this reason, it is crucial that a court reporter be completely accurate in their shorthand typing, so no important words or phrases are missed that could make or break an attorney’s case. Additionally, court reporters must learn an entire set of legal vocabulary and processes that they will use in the courtroom, all while navigating the stenotype machine that has been compared to using an instrument and a foreign language at the same time. This additional difficulty makes it crucial for an attorney to have an excellent court reporter on hand for all their proceedings — an unskilled court reporter could break a case or result in a criminal walking free. 

Stenographer vs Digital Court Reporting: Is Stenography a Dying Profession? 

In today’s digital age, it is easy to think that stenography should already be replaced by digital recording and AI transcription of recorded words. Eventually, this will probably be the case. But look no further than millions of Americans' struggles with their “smart” phone assistant to see that AI voice transcription is still imperfect. In crucial legal settings like criminal justice proceedings, AI transcription systems are still not cutting it. 
A more viable replacement for stenographers that is already being used in some courtrooms is digital court reporting. Rather than paying a highly trained stenographer to work a complex stenotype machine, courtroom proceedings are simply recorded as digital audio, then after the proceeding, a less trained (and less expensive) typist transcribes the record at a slower pace. The problem that many digital court reported records run into is inaudible moments. Often a microphone will sizzle or a witness moves away from the microphone, resulting in difficult-to-hear and impossible-to-transcribe moments on the record. In high-stakes criminal justice, this can have a massive impact. A live stenographer has better hearing and can ask for a statement to be repeated if they miss a few words.
While digital options are certainly going to eat into the job market for stenographers (market sources anticipate the number of jobs to slow), there is still an anticipated shortage. The average age of stenographers is well into their fifties, and in the next ten years, the retirement wave is expected to create a shortage of stenographers. This makes stenography a very viable career even as the industry becomes increasingly digital. 

NAEGELI Court Reporting

As a one-stop shop for legal support services, NAEGELI Deposition & Trial provides highly skilled court reporters, after-the-matter transcription services, and cutting-edge technology for everything from transcription to videoconferencing. Our stenographers are extremely vetted and ready to aid in any court or legal proceeding, with accuracy exceeding industry expectations. For stenographer services or inquiries about work as a court reporter, contact us today!