Lesson 1: Fingers And Keys

The Keyboard

A nice place to start learning Plover is with its most obvious feature - the keyboard. What is this thing? Some letters seem to be missing, others seem to be duplicated. It looks weird.

The most immediately useful thing to know is that all the consonant keys map to their corresponding consonant sounds. Plover - and all steno systems - express words primarily as groups of sounds rather than groups of letters of the alphabet. So right away you now know that either of the two P keys would be used to type the 'p' sound, either of the two R keys would be used to type the 'r' sound, and so on. That's already a lot of consonant sounds available for typing, without having to memorize anything. The current lesson will focus on these consonants and the four somewhat more complicated vowel keys; the rest will be covered in later lessons.

Before anything else, you should learn the proper keyboard fingering. If you've ever studied touch-typing on the QWERTY keyboard, you probably spent quite a bit of time getting comfortable with the home position and with the proper ways to stretch your fingers to reach all the keys. On a steno keyboard, none of that complexity exists, and you can learn proper fingering in about one minute.

In the following diagram, the blue boxes contain the keys associated with each finger, and the tan circles represent the home position for the finger responsible for the keys in that blue box.

As you can see, with the exception of the left little finger, each finger rests at the border between two keys; and that finger is used to press either (or both) of those keys. The right little finger has the additional responsibility of the D and Z keys, and the right forefinger is responsible for the asterisk. The thumbs rest on their sides, rather than on their pads. But you can easily see that unlike QWERTY keyboards, none of your fingers will ever move very far from their home positions. This helps with the blazingly fast typing speeds.

You're almost ready to start typing words, but there's a detail or two regarding the F and G keys, and we need to go over the vowel keys as well.

  • F: In addition to the 'f' sound, this key is also used to indicate the 'v' sound (and sometimes 's', as you'll see in Lesson 2: Steno Order).
  • G: In addition to the hard 'g' sound used in words like 'hug' and 'rag', this key may also be used to indicate the 'ing' sound, in words like 'using' and 'holding'.

Rules For Short Vowel Sounds

If you're not sure about the difference between long and short vowels, or what diphthongs are, here's a useful article on long and short vowels and an article on diphthongs. The rest of this lesson, and future lessons, all assume you have a clear understanding of those things.

Rule 1: If the vowel letter in the written word appears without another vowel letter next to it, then it doesn't matter which short vowel sound it makes. The Plover key labeled with that letter is always used to stroke the word.

So 'not' is stroked with O because it's spelled with "o", and 'tar' is stroked with A because it's spelled with "a". Likewise, 'pert' uses E and 'purse' uses U.

Rule 2: If the vowel sound in the written word is spelled with two or more consecutive vowel letters, then it doesn't matter what spelling is used. The Plover key whose short vowel sound matches the sound in the word is always used to stroke the word.

So 'heart' is stroked with an A because it uses a short 'a' sound;  'roar' is stroked with O because it uses a short 'o' sound; 'head' is stroked with E because it uses a short 'e' sound; 'tough' is stroked with a U because it uses a short 'u' sound. Short vowel sounds like the 'a' in 'bat' and the 'u' in 'put' follow the same rule.

What About Long Vowels And Diphthongs?

A long vowel sounds kind of like saying the name of the letter. For example, the word 'bake' uses a long 'a' sound, the word 'poke' uses a long 'o' sound, the word 'teeth' uses a long 'e' sound, and the word 'few' uses a long 'u' sound. The 'oo' sound in words like 'glue' and 'crew' is also considered a long 'u' sound in Plover.

Diphthongs are where the sound of one vowel transitions to the sound of another, as in the 'ow' sound in 'down' and the 'oi' sound in 'toil'; or where two vowel sounds are merged together, as in the 'aw' sound in 'dawn'.

Plover handles long vowels and diphthongs by stroking two or more vowel keys together. See 3A: Vowels for the full explanation.

If you're still a little fuzzy on the vowel sounds, don't worry. The exercises below will help.

Stroking Your First Words

Now you're ready to start typing words. Open a text editor, put your steno keyboard (or your converted QWERTY keyboard) in front of you, and activate the Plover software. Once you're set up, do the following steps:

  • Rest your left third finger on the T key on the left half of the keyboard
  • Rest your left thumb on the A key
  • Rest your right middle finger on the P key on the right half of the keyboard

When your fingers are in position, press them all down together, and release them. Out comes the word 'tap'! You've just tapped your first word in steno!

Notice that it doesn't really matter that all the keys go down absolutely simultaneously. The only thing Plover cares about is that there's one moment in time when all three keys are down together. If one goes down a little before the others, or comes up later than the others, Plover still does the right thing.

Try another word:

  • Rest your left forefinger on the H key on the left half of the keyboard
  • Rest your left thumb on the O key
  • Rest your right middle finger on the P key on the right half of the keyboard

When your fingers are in position, press them all down together, and release them. You just stroked 'hop'! Now hop for joy - you just tapped your second word in steno!

One important detail to take note of is the fact that it matters which side of the keyboard contains the consonant sound you want. In the case of 'tap' and 'hop', you used the P from the right side of the keyboard rather than the left. This is because the P was needed at the tail end of the syllable rather than at the start of it. A more rigorous explanation of this can be found in Lesson 2: Steno Order. For now, just remember that the start of a syllable is keyed on the left side of the keyboard, and the end of a syllable is keyed on the right. The vowels are keyed toward the middle of the keyboard, just as they usually occur in the middle of a syllable.

Think of a few more one-syllable words that use the consonant and vowel sounds described above, and try stroking them on your own. But don't just press keys at random - if you press keys that don't sound out a real word, it's possible Plover will output one of its many briefs (special time-saving keystrokes, covered in Lesson 4: Common Briefs); and that won't help you learn the keyboard. Just take your time, think of words that use the sounds represented on the keyboard, and stroke them in, just as you did with 'tap' and 'hop'.

Exercise: One-Syllable Words

It's a bit too soon for whole sentences, but try to figure out the chords for these words, and stroke them out on the keyboard. Practice until you can type each word without looking at the keyboard or reviewing the meanings of the vowel keys. Note that there's a little surprise in this exercise, that I'll explain afterwards:

  • 'sap'sag'sat'sass'sad' 'sop' 'sob' 'sell' 'set' 'says'
  • 'tar' 'tap' 'tab' 'tag' 'tad' 'tour' 'top' 'toll' 'tell' 'tough' 'tub' 'tug'
  • 'car' 'cap' 'cab' 'cat' 'cad' 'core' 'cop' 'cog' 'cot' 'cod' 'keg' 'cuff' 'cur' 'cup' 'cub' 'cull' 'cut' 'cuss'
  • 'pal' 'pat' 'pass' 'pad' 'pour' 'poll' 'pot' 'pod' 'pep' 'peg' 'pet' 'puff' 'pup' 'pub' 'pull' 'pug' 'put' 'pus'
  • 'war' 'wag' 'wad' 'was' 'wore' 'web' 'well' 'wet' 'wed'
  • 'half' 'hag' 'hat' 'had' 'has' 'hop' 'hog' 'hot' 'her' 'hell' 'head' 'huff' 'hub' 'hull' 'hug' 'hut'
  • 'rap' 'rag' 'rat' 'roar' 'rob' 'roll' 'rot' 'rod' 'red' 'rough' 'rub' 'rug' 'rut'

Try the same words in a different order:

  • 'half' 'tough' 'cuff' 'puff' 'huff' 'rough'
  • 'tar' 'car' 'war' 'tour' 'core' 'pour' 'wore' 'roar' 'her' 'cur
  • 'sap' 'tap' 'cap' 'rap' 'sop' 'top' 'cop' 'hop' 'pep' 'cup' 'pup'
  • 'tab' 'cab' 'sob' 'rob' 'web' 'tub' 'cub' 'pub' 'rub'
  • 'pal' 'toll' 'poll' 'roll' 'sell' 'tell' 'well' 'hell' 'cull' 'pull' 'hull'
  • 'sag' 'tag' 'wag' 'hag' 'rag' 'cog' 'hog' 'keg' 'peg' 'tug' 'pug' 'hug' 'rug'
  • 'sat' 'cat' 'pat' 'hat' 'rat' 'cot' 'pot' 'hot' 'rot' 'set' 'pet' 'wet' 'cut' 'put' 'hut' 'rut'
  • 'sass' 'pass' 'cuss' 'pus'
  • 'sad' 'tad' 'cad' 'pad' 'wad' 'had' 'cod' 'pod' 'wed' 'head' 'red'
  • 'has' 'says' 'was'
There are some interactive drills that correspond to the 'Learn Plover' exercises. Try the drills for one syllable words.

Although these exercises are for single words as you make progress feel to try other practice methods which include words in context. A list of resources is available on the Plover Wiki. 

Considerations

Were you able to stroke all those words without looking any of them up? You might have had trouble with 'says', if you tried to stroke it SES. The correct stroke is SEZ, because the 's' at the end of the word is really pronounced like a 'z'.

You probably had no trouble stroking the word 'was', whether you conceived of it phonetically as WAS, WAZ, or WUZ. Regardless of which one you tried, you guessed right. The Plover dictionary file defines each of those as 'was'. Multiple dictionary entries for the same word is quite common with Plover and other steno theories. It helps reduce the impact of misstrokes. Of course, this approach only works if there are no similar-sounding words that need those strokes. But Plover tries to anticipate as many different reasonable ways of stroking a word as possible.

If you made any mistakes at all in this exercise, you probably noticed some unexpected output. These would take two possible forms. Either you saw an all-caps representation of your keypresses, such as 'HOL' or 'HOB', or you saw words that you didn't know you were typing, such as 'possible' or 'suggest'. The all-caps output just means that Plover has no dictionary entry for the chord you pressed; while the unexpected words are called briefs - they save keystrokes by letting you type fewer strokes (or just one) to get a word that might otherwise require several strokes pressed in sequence. Briefs are an important topic in Plover, but we'll cover them more in Lesson 4: Common Briefs, and Lesson 9: Designing Briefs.

Sometimes it's possible to run into trouble without making any mistakes. The two sets of words were the same in this exercise, but just had a different order. If you typed the second set as listed, however, you probably noticed that 'pad' and 'wad', when stroked one after the other, produced the odd-looking word 'Paduaed'. Even odder, if you look at the Plover dictionary file, 'Paduaed' isn't even listed. What's going on?

(Update: As of Plover 3.0.0 although PAD/WA does lead to 'Padua' PAD/WAD produces 'pad' and 'wad'. The discussion is still the same even though that doesn't occur.)

This is really a sneak peak into future lessons. The main thing that happened is that you encountered a word boundary error. Since Plover inserts all spaces for you, it has to try to be smart about where to put the spaces. And since some words are typed with more than one stroke, Plover sometimes can't tell what you want it to do. Whenever that happens, it's called a word boundary error. In this case, Plover saw the pair of strokes PAD/WA and thought you meant the city of 'Padua'. But Plover also saw that you added a D to the final stroke, to get PAD/WAD, which Plover interpreted as adding the past tense '-ed' suffix to the word. Imagine saying something like 'Dude! That guy got totally Paduaed!'

For more on these topics, see Appendix: Word Boundaries, and Lesson 5: Prefix And Suffix Strokes.

However, since all the lessons up to Lesson 5 deal with single stroke words, I can tell you a quick work-around if you encounter any more word boundary errors with single stroke words. First, use the * key to undo Plover's unexpected output. Then type each word again, with the stroke S-P between them, to make sure Plover knows to break the words there. So in this case, if you see 'Paduaed', type * twice to get rid of both strokes, then type PAD then S-P then WAD to get 'pad wad' as you expect. For other ways to get around word boundary errors, see Lesson 6: Prefix/Suffix Alternatives.

Exercise: Consonant Clusters In Single-Stroke Words

The previous exercise involved mostly three- and four-letter words. But it's sometimes possible to cluster consonants together into a single chord, to produce a longer word, or even a multi-syllable word, with that one stroke. For example, the word 'scrabble' can be stroked SKRABL. The three consonant sounds 's', 'k', and 'r' at the start of that word are also available on the left side of the keyboard as the S, K, and R keys. The next sound, 'a', also fits in after that. The final two sounds, 'b' and 'l', can be stroked with the B and L keys on the right side of the keyboard. And that's the whole word. All the sounds in the word 'scrabble' were able to fit into a single stroke. Try to stroke the following examples of similar words. Don't look at the keyboard any more than you have to:

  • 'course' 'cover' 'hover' 'rabble' 'refer' 'rebel' 'robbed' 'rubbed' 'rubble' 'straps' 'strapped' 'trouble' 'troubles' 'waft' 'webbed'

Now look at the Plover keyboard and try to find more words that could be typed in a single stroke but that use more than one consonant before or after the vowel sound. Take your time, and stroke the words you discover. See if Plover outputs the word you expected, or something else. Don't get discouraged to find that your chords don't always make the words you expect - part of the point of the exercise is to show that there's something significant we haven't covered yet, that's coming up in the next lesson.

Try the interactive drills for consonant clusters.

Considerations

Did you have any trouble figuring out the chords for the words given? They all were pretty phonetic. But you may have had a problem if you tried to stroke 'strapped' as STRAPT. The correct stroke is STRAPD.

It also may not have been obvious what fingering to use when stroking 'cover', 'hover', and 'refer'. The F and the R keys on the right side of the keyboard are both required by each of these words, but only your right index finger is assigned to those keys. You may have been tempted to press one key with your forefinger, and the other with another finger. But the correct way is to use the forefinger alone, pressing down at the border between the two keys.

In the case of the right little finger, it's possible that you might need to press the T, S, D, and Z keys all at once. In that case, the correct way is to use the little finger alone, pressing down at the adjacent corners of all four keys.

Back to this exercise. What happened when you tried making your own longer words? Did it work as you expected? You may have found that some of the chords you came up with didn't produce the words you expected, or even may not have produced any word, but just the raw Plover keystroke. If you tried to write the word 'trust', for example, you may have used the stroke TRUST, and discovered that this didn't work. Likewise if you tried to stroke 'tassle' as TASL.

This leads us to the all-important Lesson 2: Steno Order.

Where Are We?

This lesson was long, but look at all the words you can type already!

By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • draw a correctly labeled picture of the Plover keyboard without looking at the actual keyboard
  • identify all the consonant sounds represented by the different keys
  • understand the rules governing how to stroke short vowel sounds
  • correctly stroke some single-syllable words on your keyboard, typing earlier consonant sounds on the left side of the keyboard, and later consonant sounds on the right

If you're still fuzzy on some of the above, you should repeat the parts of this lesson that gave you trouble. Later lessons assume that you've mastered the material covered in this one.

Solutions To Exercises

Solution: Single-Syllable Words

  • 'had': HAD
  • 'half': HAF
  • 'hag': HAG
  • 'has': HAZ or HAS
  • 'hat': HAT
  • 'head': HED
  • 'hell': HEL
  • 'her': HER
  • 'hog': HOG
  • 'hop': HOP
  • 'not': NOT
  • 'hub': HUB
  • 'huff': HUF
  • 'hug': HUG
  • 'hull': HUL
  • 'hut': HUT
  • 'cab': KAB
  • 'cad': KAD
  • 'cap': KAP
  • 'car': KAR
  • 'cat': KAT
  • 'keg': KEG
  • 'cod': KOD
  • 'cog': KOG
  • 'cop': KOP
  • 'core': KOR
  • 'cot': KOT
  • 'cub': KUB
  • 'cuff': KUF
  • 'cull': KUL
  • 'cup': KUP
  • 'cur': KUR
  • 'cuss': KUS
  • 'cut': KUT
  • 'pad': PAD
  • 'pal': PAL
  • 'pass': PAS
  • 'pat': PAT
  • 'peg': PEG
  • 'pep': PEP
  • 'pet': PET
  • 'pod': POD
  • 'poll': POL
  • 'pour': POR
  • 'pot': POT
  • 'pub': PUB
  • 'puff': PUF
  • 'pug': PUG
  • 'pull': PULL
  • 'pup': PUP
  • 'pus': PUS
  • 'put': PUT
  • 'rag': RAG
  • 'rap': RAP
  • 'rat': RAT
  • 'red': RED
  • 'rob': ROB
  • 'rod': ROD
  • 'roll': ROLL
  • 'roar': ROR
  • 'rot': ROT
  • 'rub': RUB
  • 'rough': RUF
  • 'rug': RUG
  • 'rut': RUT
  • 'sad': SAD
  • 'sag': SAG
  • 'sap': SAP
  • 'sass': SAS
  • 'sat': SAT
  • 'sell': SEL
  • 'set': SET
  • 'says': SEZ
  • 'sob': SOB
  • 'sop': SOP
  • 'tab': TAB
  • 'tad': TAD
  • 'tag': TAG
  • 'tap': TAP
  • 'tar': TAR
  • 'tell': TEL
  • 'toll': TOL
  • 'top': TOP
  • 'tour': TOR
  • 'tub': TUB
  • 'tough': TUF
  • 'tug': TUG
  • 'wad': WAD
  • 'wag': WAG
  • 'war': WAR
  • 'was': WUZ, WAS, or WAZ
  • 'web': WEB
  • 'wed': WED
  • 'well': WEL
  • 'wet': WET
  • 'wore': WOR

Solution: Consonant Clusters In Single-Stroke Words

  • 'course': KORS
  • 'cover': KOFR
  • 'hover': HOFR
  • 'rabble': RABL
  • 'refer': REFR
  • 'rebel': REBL
  • 'robbed': ROBD
  • 'rubbed': RUBD
  • 'rubble': RUBL
  • 'straps': STRAPS
  • 'strapped': STRAPD
  • 'trouble': TRUBL
  • 'troubles': TRUBLS
  • 'waft': WAFT
  • 'webbed': WEBD