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What is Stenography?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Stenography is the practice of writing in shorthand, either by hand or with a specialized stenograph machine. Well through the 20th century, stenography was a necessary skill for secretaries, reporters, and other people who needed to quickly and accurately record written information. While this skill is in less wide use today, it is still valuable in some environments, such as courtrooms, where a real time transcription of events is required by law.

People have been practicing stenography for almost as long as they have been writing. Shorthand systems can work in a number of different ways, and numerous languages have spawned a whole assortment of shorthand systems. Some systems rely on symbols which represent specific letters, sounds, or concepts, while others use known letters, but assign new meaning to the letters for the purpose of writing in shorthand.

In all cases, the goal of stenography is to make it easy to write something down quickly and with great accuracy. Using stenography, someone can record information much more quickly than he or she could be writing. Handwritten stenography has been an arsenal in the tool of secretaries, journalists, and other note takers for centuries, with some people developing their own systems to create encoded shorthand which cannot be read by anyone else. An encoded system can be useful for people who want to be able to handle sensitive information safely.

Stenotype machines typically have a small array of keys which is operated by “chording,” in which multiple keys are hit at the same time to record an entire line of data. A stenotype user can represent entire sentences with only a few letters, relying on his or her knowledge of a particular stenotype system and where the letters are placed on the paper printout. In many cases, multiple meanings can be assigned to the same letter at the same position, with the interpretation of the printout depending on context.

One of the interesting things about stenography is that while it is technically universal, many people have trouble reading things written in shorthand by someone else. Some people, such as court reporters, are required to learn and use a standard system so that independent review of the transcript can be performed. Many people also like to learn established systems so that they can hire transcriptionists to “unpack” their shorthand into full text. For people who use unusual systems or modify a system, even unintentionally, a shorthand communication can look like total gibberish to someone else.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon316793 — On Jan 30, 2013

I am a court reporter school dropout. I got my certificate in medical transcription but have been unable to make any real money using this skill as it seems like it is a dying field. I want to return to court reporting school but am afraid that I will have the same problem in finding employment once I finally graduate.

By anon275195 — On Jun 16, 2012

"Stenography is a lifelong personal skill". Very true. After over 35 years as court stenographer, when I retired from the service, I offered to teach stenography in a state university satellite campus. Not so much for the monetary consideration, but for the joy and enthusiasm of being able to share my expertise with the students.

By anon164101 — On Mar 30, 2011

@upnorth31: I am actually in school for Stenography right now. It's, on average, a three year degree at special schools throughout the nation. and by golly it's hard, with an 80 percent drop out rate, so it may make you think twice about taking this up. Even though it is lovely and fun, you have to be devoted. every free minute i get is devoted to practicing and studying my theory, which i developed on my own. On the plus side, the pay is very, very, very good.

By reader888 — On Mar 24, 2011

Whenever I have to take notes for something, whether it be during a business meeting or for something personal, I use my own form of shorthand writing. I never really thought of this as being a form of stenography before, but I guess it would qualify.

However, I can guarantee it would be the kind that no other person would ever be able to decipher. Sometimes I laugh at myself when I am reading over my notes, because they I realize that they would look like they meant absolutely nothing to another person!

By upnorth31 — On Mar 23, 2011

I have always been intrigued by this. Every time I see a courtroom on television and they show the stenographer, I am fascinated. Their fingers are always moving, and so fast!

I would love to learn how to do this. Is there special schooling you have to go through to become a courtroom stenographer? Do you have to go to a four year college, or is there a simple course you can take?

I just think it would be a great job to have. I love typing and it would be so interesting to sit in on all of the court cases.

By write79 — On Mar 22, 2011

I have always thought that stenography sounded very hard and complicated. Maybe it's just because I don't have any experience with it. It just seems like it would be so hard to do, like learning a whole different language.

It seems like it would be especially challenging to do court stenography where it is extremely important that the information be recorded correctly.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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