The Relativity of Theory - Carol Jochim

First off, what sets your theory apart from the others out there?

There are two major areas where Phoenix Theory differs from conventional theories. FIRST: We write vowels by sound, rather than conforming steno strokes to vowel spelling. SECOND: We use a patented vowel omission principle.

The most-frequently-occurring vowel sound in spoken English is called the schwa vowel sound. The schwa vowel is also the correct pronunciation for the vast majority of all vowel-consonant word endings. Given the prominence of this vowel sound, you’d think we would have learned all about it in grammar school, but that’s usually not the case. The schwa vowel is that “uh” sound you hear in words like villain, fathom, fatten, carbon, satin, latent, blatant, lovable, sensible, summer, favor, tartar, martyr, legal, humble, baggage, modem, famous, etc. The schwa vowel sound is tricky because it can be spelled 43 different ways – which explains in large part why English is so darned hard to spell! The sound gives you no clue as to the correct spelling – or in our case, the correct steno. So in ending sounds, when this “uh” sound occurs before a consonant, we omit the vowel, and we stroke VIL/-N, FATH/-M, FAT/-N, KARB/-N, SAT/-N, LAIT/-NT, BLAIT/-NT, LUV/-BL, SENS/-BL, SUM/-R, FAIV/-R, TART/-R, MART/-R, LAOEG/-L, HUM/B-L, BAG/-J, MOED/-M, FAIM/-S, etc.

The main advantages are: (1) We don’t have to know which of the 43 ways this sound is spelled before we can write steno which will match a translation dictionary entry. (2) When we read back a stroke from which the vowel has been omitted, we always verbalize the omitted vowel as “uh.” Since “uh” is the correct sound, we can more easily read back even unfamiliar words with correct pronunciation. (3) Omitting the vowels simplifies the strokes, making strokes faster to execute and less susceptible to stroking errors; (4) Omitting the vowel from the ending sounds automatically creates a distinction, and eliminates any conflict, between word beginnings/endings such as on-/-on, or-/-or, en-/-en, al-/-al, em-/-em, etc., without having to learn (and remember to use!) a lot of complicated rules -- and we never have to double consonants. (5) We’ve eliminated one-word/two-word conflicts which other theories have been unsuccessful in eliminating: Some examples are: morbid/more bid (MOR/B-D), legend/ledge end (LEJ/-ND), bargain/bar gain (BAR/G-N or BARG/-N), lettuce/let us (LET/-S), bracelet/brace let (BRAIS/L-T), helmet/hell met (HEL/M-T), kingdom/king dom- (KEUPBG/D-M), etc. (6) We write many compound words without conflict and without need for a “delete space” stroke. A few examples are: HOEM/W-RK, URTH/W-RM, NAOEUT/SH-RT, SAELZ/PH-PB, SAELZ/G-RL, SHORT/T-RM, TRUST/W-RTH/AE, THAUT/F-L, MAIN/L-ND, HOEM/K-M/-G, etc.

Are there different theories for different students? If a student wants to do CART, should they pick a different theory than one who wants to be a court reporter?

Every realtime theory should provide the foundation for, and meet all the required elements for, any area in which you choose to use your steno skills: high-speed text entry, teleconferencing, medical stenoscription, court reporting, captioning, or CART. Today you may be committed to becoming a court reporter; next month you might find yourself leaning more towards captioning. At any time during either your training or your career, circumstances might make it necessary either temporarily or permanently for you to use your steno skills in other areas. You want a theory which gives you the foundation for using your steno skills for the greatest choice of career paths at any time throughout your career.

I like to think that theory is a solid blueprint that should be constantly evolving and personalized by the student. Is theory written in stone, or should it be customized?

Yes, a theory should be “constantly evolving.” As newly-coined words come into usage, as new software capabilities are developed, as new briefs, stroking options, and shortcuts are identified, the theory and translation dictionary should be updated. These updates are posted periodically on our website under the Dictionary Updates button.

And, yes, students can and should “personalize” their writing style – but not until they’ve thoroughly mastered all theory principles and have a comprehensive understanding of “conflicts”!

Your use of the word “blueprint” is descriptive and makes a good analogy. Let’s say you found the perfect blueprint for your dream home. It’s painstakingly designed to have impeccable structural integrity and functionality.

You can make endless cosmetic changes in the way of colors, fabrics, fixtures, hardware, etc., to customize the house to your tastes and needs. You can even make more substantial changes such as a different choice of appliances, replace a sliding door with French doors, add a service island in the kitchen, add a patio – as long as you choose replacements/alterations/additions that fit the blueprints.

But what happens if the builder deviates from the blueprint and makes changes in materials, dimensions, and support structures and also throws in some of his old favorite time-saving or cost-cutting tricks? Chances are high that your dream home will no longer have the structural integrity or functionality that the blueprint was designed to give you.

Creating a conflict-free machine shorthand language for writing English in steno is like trying to solve some extraordinarily complicated Chinese puzzle – or else I’m incredibly dull-witted because it took me almost six years to create a theory that is virtually conflict-free, has a minimum of “rules” to memorize, and has the flexibility to give the writer stroking options.

Like your dream home, writers can customize their theory by choosing which briefs/phrases to use or not use, they can create/adopt additional brief forms, they can choose whether or not to use stroking options, they can break words into steno strokes in any logical manner that is easiest or most natural for them.

But, also like your dream home, if changes are made in the principles which form the basic structure of the theory, the chances are high that the theory will no longer be structurally sound or function as it was designed to do.

One of the major problems faced by all theories (and students) today -- in fact a problem I’ve seen over the past 20 years, long before Phoenix Theory was created -- is the teacher who instructs students, “I always used to do it this way and it worked for me, so just ignore what your theory book says and do it my way.” The result is almost guaranteed to create conflicts, create inconsistences and contradictions which slow down the learning and speedbuilding process, and ultimately result in a compromised theory which is no longer supported by the translation dictionary. In other words, the theory no longer has the structural integrity and functionality it was painstakingly designed to have.

All NCRA-approved theories have been reviewed and approved by the Theory Review Task Force for teaching in NCRA-approved schools. Once any substantive change or deviation is made from the theory text as it was approved by the Task Force, it is no longer an “approved” theory.

Don’t all theories have conflicts?

Because English is so complex, convoluted, and replete with instances where identical increments of sound or spelling are used as words, word parts, word beginnings, and word endings, no theory can factually claim to be “100% conflict free.” And since the language is always changing and evolving, who knows what new conflicts may come about. We managed for hundreds of years without “fat” being an English (or steno) conflict until someone coined the word “phat”! (Obviously coined by someone who doesn’t write steno!)

Some theories are certainly more conflict-free than others. I will never claim that Phoenix Theory is “100% conflict-free.” I’ve even gone so far as to caution Stenograph that if their marketing department ever succumbs to the temptation to use that verbiage to compete with other such claims, the after-burner on my broomstick will kick into high gear. That’s an insupportable claim for any theory. However, I can say with absolute confidence that Phoenix Theory is “virtually” conflict free.

There’s a group of “Conflict Finder Sentences” posted on the website at Realtime trainers occasionally request permission to use these Conflict Finder Sentences in their realtime training seminars. It might be interesting for you to print out these sentences, write them for realtime translation, and see if you have these conflicts in your writing.

Is it okay to mix and match theories?

Before CAT, jumbling theories together was pretty much the “norm.” Today, when our steno strokes have to exactly match entries in translation dictionaries, the disadvantages are many. Again you wind up with inconsistencies and contradictions which can slow down speedbuilding, you can unwittingly create numerous conflicts, and you’ll almost inevitably wind up with a mishmash which won’t translate against either dictionary.

If your present theory isn’t supported by a comprehensive dictionary, that may not seem like such a big deal to you. But I think I can say without reservation that anyone accustomed to using the Phoenix Theory translation dictionary would never do anything that would compromise their ability to continue using it to its maximum benefit.

We always hear about “stroke-intensive” theories. What does that mean?

It simply means theories that are presumed to require more strokes than other theories to write a comparable vocabulary. I say presumed because, in my experience, those comments are often misinformed or unfounded.

Theories which add inflected endings (-s/es, -ed, -ing) in a second stroke are commonly described as “stroke intensive” by people who are seemingly totally unaware that NCRA has strongly “recommended” second-stroke inflected endings and is critical of theories which don’t follow that recommendation and that some captioning companies, including Vitac, require their captioners to write all inflected endings in second strokes.

And there’s good justification for the NCRA recommendation and Vitac requirement: Adding inflected endings onto root words results in hundreds of conflicts. Sure, you can avoid them – if you’re alert enough under on-the-job stresses, strains, and distractions to remember that you can write “stays” in one stroke but not “days” (dace/daze), “shied” but not “pried” (pride), “poled“ but not “bowled” (bold), “praying” but not “playing” (plague), “manning” but not “panning” (pang), “keys” but not frees (freeze), ad nauseam.

As an individual, you can decide which works best for you: (1) The automatic response of coming back for second stroke endings; or (2) The mental gymnastics of recognizing/avoiding the conflicts. But theories have to be responsive to NCRA recommendations and captioning company requirements.

Phoenix uses principles for writing inflected endings which avoid all conflicts but also substantially reduce the number of second-stroke endings necessary. For example, in a list of approximately 2,300 high-frequency words, writing all inflected endings in second strokes requires 372 second strokes. Phoenix principles require 209 second strokes when writing those same words, a reduction of approximately 40 percent.

If you’re concerned because someone has described your theory as “stroke intensive” because you write inflected endings in a second stroke, take it with a grain of salt. The truth is that if you compared the totality of your theory with the totality of their writing style (as I have done), you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that your writing is actually less stroke intensive than theirs.

It’s easy for a successful reporter to assume that other successful reporters write basically the same way they do – and if they don’t, they should! If a reporter who uses briefs for certain words looks at your notes and sees you haven’t used the same briefs or an equal number of briefs, they’re prone to tell you your theory is “just too stroke-intensive.” In truth, it may have nothing at all to do with your “theory”; it may simply be your personal preference not to use that many briefs. If the reporter’s comeback is, “Well, you’ll never be able to reach graduation or reporting speeds unless you start using a lot more briefs to cut down your “stroke intensity,” there are a lot of skilled reporters out there, even National Speed Contest winners, who’d be happy to argue the point with them.

There’s a Theory Comparison Chart on the Phoenix Theory website. It consists of a list of 745 words which cover most of the elements of English structure and shows the actual steno used by the more prominent theories, including the stroke/key counts. You can check out this chart to see the difference in stroke-intensity and key-intensity of today’s prominent theories.

Why did the new theories move "the" away from the left bank (/T or /TD)?

I can’t answer for other theories. Phoenix Theory consistently uses the final-side keys for “endings,” including the /-T: e.g., rabbit = RAB/-T, divot = TKEUFB/-T, SEN/-T, etc. We do use –T to represent “the” as the ending word of phrases.

Students used to graduate at a higher rate and faster using an older theory – what makes any newer theory better?

When I was in school many, many, many years ago, the national graduation rate was reported as 2.5 percent. Embarrassing, huh? When I was a school owner in the mid to late ’70s, our average time to graduation was 24 to 36 months. During the ’90s, NCRA reported that the average time to graduation was 42 months. Several months back, a JCR article reported that the average time to graduation had dropped to 38 months.

Although it’s harder than pulling hens’ teeth to get confidential information such as verifiable statistics from school administrators, it definitely appears that our graduation rate today is appreciably higher than back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And the JCR article would indicate that the training time is again comparable to that experienced in the ‘70s.

We’ve all heard or read comments bemoaning the fact that those “good old standard” theories we used to write were “sure a lot shorter and easier” than today’s theories. Well, of course they were easier. We could write words any old way we wanted as long as we could read – Remember? Guess? – what they were. The only punctuation we wrote was the period, comma, and question mark; we didn’t learn strokes for or write any other punctuation or symbols. We didn’t even learn an “alphabet” for fingerspelling, let alone all the other alphabet functions we need for realtime translation. We didn’t have any way to capitalize a word, and we sure didn’t worry about “delete space” or “insert space” strokes for dealing with compound words. Heck, we didn’t even differentiate between homonyms. In fact, some theories used the same steno stroke to represent five, six, seven different words or phrases. We didn’t worry about the gazillion word boundary conflicts in the language because we didn’t even realize they existed – until we started trying to use computer translation. We didn’t worry about eliminating conflicts; we were too busy making up shortcuts and phrases that actually created a few hundred more conflicts.

And when we finished writing steno, we spent endless hours dictating our notes and trying to recall whether the deponent was “raising horses” or “racing horses,” whether he was “there for months” or “there four months.”

Of course the old standard theories were shorter and easier to learn. They taught nothing more than the keys/key combinations on the keyboard, strokes for the most basic punctuation, and that stroking an asterisk once indicated a correction and stroking it twice meant a new paragraph.

Like everyone else, I assumed that the “good old standards” probably were shorter and less stroke-intensive than today’s theories. That only made sense. After all, there’s no certainly no comparison between the simplicity of and limited uses for the old theories and the sophistication of realtime machine shorthand and the career options it’s opened for us. But I finally became curious as to exactly how much shorter and less stroke-intensive these “good old standards” were. So I took the old Stenograph Touch Shorthand from the 1960’s (you can’t get much more “old standard” than that!), took the first 3,000 words from their steno guide and charted the steno for Stenograph Touch Shorthand and for Phoenix Theory for those 3,000 words. Even I was surprised to discover that Phoenix Theory was both less stroke-intensive and less key-intensive than this “good old standard.” (If you’d like to see the comparison for yourself, it’s also on our website.)

I thought, okay, maybe it’s not the old theories themselves which were shorter, maybe it’s the fact that working reporters writing those old theories have continued throughout their careers to adopt more brief forms and incorporate more shortcuts, so, yes, you’d expect their writing to be shorter than a new graduate writing one of today’s theories. As part of a study currently being conducted, court reporters participating in the study have written a list of approximately 2,300 high-frequency words and submitted their steno notes. I’ve charted those notes and the number of strokes/keys used to write each word. So far I’ve only charted the notes of 11 participants in the study, but they include court reporters, captioners, Cart providers, and National Speed Contest winners, with on-the-job experience ranging from six to thirty-five years. Of these eleven participants, eight of them used more keys, six of them used more strokes than someone writing Phoenix Theory. (You might find it interesting that the reporter using the most briefs for these high-frequency words wrote approximately 1,430 of the words as briefs, the reporter using the least number of briefs wrote approximately 660 of the words as briefs.)

Obviously, in doing these different comparisons, I’ve used Phoenix Theory as the realtime theory. Charting the notes is time-consuming, tedious, and painstaking, and I have neither the time nor motivation to do the same comparison for other theories. However, if you want to make the same comparisons with your theory, you may well find similar results.

During the 1980’s I owned/operated a company which provided full CAT service to 100 reporter clients. I personally did the initial editing and dictionary building for each new client until I knew enough about their theory, their writing style, and their style of punctuation to make the best match between them and one of our scopists. So I can say from personal observation and without reservation that, without significant modification, none of the various theories written by these 100 reporter clients was more than minimally “computer compatible” and none of them was viable for realtime translation.

What makes the newer theories better is that without today’s computer-compatible realtime theories, we’d still be either spending endless hours dictating our notes or an exorbitant amount of time “editing” our computer translation, there would be no “realtime” writing and hence no realtime courtrooms, no captioning, no CART. Other technologies would have passed us by a decade or so ago, and machine shorthand would be a dying or obsolete technology.

To students
If someone has criticized some aspect of your theory, keep in mind that, as well-intentioned as the comment may be, it may also be the result of misinformation or lack of information. Ask them what they base their comment on. Ask them if they will help you by writing a list of words and giving you their notes so you can see where your writing is “too stroke intensive.” (I’ll be happy to provide you with the list of 2,300 high-frequency words.)

Also, as frustrating as it may be, don’t let conflicting advice – mine or anyone else’s -- regarding theories, inflected endings, how many briefs to use, yada, yada, yada, discourage you or distract you from you goal. Investigate, analyze, and make your own decisions on what’s best for you and continue toward your goal of becoming a court reporter, captioner, or CART provider. They are very rewarding careers.