Court reporters can type an amazing 300 plus words per minute. The current top speed was clocked in at 360 words per minute by Mark Kislingbury, the world speed record holder in court reporting. In fact, there is even a competition each year to crown the fastest (and most accurate) court reporter.
With the average American typing speed between 35 and 70 words per minute, you may be wondering how in the world court reporters can type 10 times as fast as the rest of us. The secret court to reporters’ speed (beyond their amazing skills) is the stenograph machine.
The stenograph (steno for short) allows court reporters to use a form of shorthand known as stenography. The steno has 22 keys, all of which are unmarked. Each of the keys represents a sound. So, instead of typing out the way a word is actually spelled, court reporters use combinations of keys to type the way the word sounds phonetically. Thanks to the machine’s small size, court reporters gain speed because they have little need to move their hands. Even when striking multiple keys together (called chording), it takes no longer than striking a single key for a trained court reporter.
The 22 key steno keyboard is split into 2 parts, one for the left fingers and one for the right fingers. It also has a second level of keys that the thumbs rest upon. The left side, called the initial keys, consists of initial phonetic sounds, as in the hard K in the word “can.” The right side, called the final keys, consists of the final phonetic sounds, as in the N ending in the same word “can”.
The second level where the thumbs rest in the middle are the four vowel keys. Even though the English language contains 5 (or 6 counting “y”) vowels, court reporters can represent all vowel sounds using only these four keys.
The final key on the steno is an asterisk. It is used to mark an error in typing. When a court reporter mistakenly types something wrong, he or she will key an asterisk before retyping that section.
As you might imagine, it takes a considerable amount of training an expertise to operate a steno swiftly and accurately. Court reporters must learn to think differently. They have to listen to the sound of the words to “spell” them phonetically and completely disregard the words’ actual spelling, meaning or context. They must them break the words into syllables. Generally, court reporters are taught that each stroke (made up of one a combination of keys) should be made for each syllable spoken. Next, court reporters must take into account that the steno prints letters in order from left to right (initial sound, vowel, final sound), so the court reporter must also think, and type, in this order.
In addition to typing phonically and chording, court reporters use abbreviations to stand for complete words. Similar to the way most people text or even tweet, common abbreviations used by court reporters include “U” for “you” and “E” for “he”.
Court reporters do all of this while transcribing your legal proceeding with 98.5 to 100% accuracy. Pretty amazing, right?
As you can see court reporters are not your standard typists and steno machines are not your standard QWERTY keyboard. Court reporting requires an immense amount of training, attention to detail and skill.