Lesson 9: Designing Briefs

Introduction

Plover, and all steno systems, assume that users regularly update their dictionary files with personalized briefs, commands, and other entries. You don't have to do it. The default dictionary may be sufficient for your needs. You may be comfortable typing multi-stroke words, and fingerspelling names, and so on. Or you may simply dislike the concept of briefs, and prefer to avoid too much memorization.

Designing briefs is not for everyone, but it is an integral part of high speed typing. The default Plover dictionary is the result of years of refinement in a professional setting, and so you can learn to type extremely fast with it. It includes well-designed single-stroke briefs for many words. But there will always be the opportunity to increase that efficiency. Any time you find yourself fingerspelling something, or typing a multi-stroke word, that's an opportunity to see if there's a corresponding brief in the dictionary file, or create one yourself. Any time you find yourself using the same phrase many times in a given project, that's an opportunity for a brief. And if you use keystroke-centric software like emacs or vim, or if you do a lot of software programming, those all include many opportunities to create briefs.

The main thing to remember when creating your own briefs is that they should somehow resemble the target word. Most of the suggestions in this lesson have to do with designing a brief that sounds like its word. Internalize that principle and you'll ultimately end up with a clean library of reliable briefs. Ignore that principle and you'll start to run into difficulties remembering the briefs you've created, or avoiding conflicts between them.

Take your time designing briefs, especially when you're just getting started. Give each one some real thought. Try different approaches, and see if one of them in particular stands out as an obviously best choice. Or, if several seem equally good, you can add them all. There's no rule against adding more than one brief for the same word.

Or if you're creating briefs for non-words, like various programming constructs, try to design patterns that make sense to you, and that will support a corpus of related briefs.

Keep track of the briefs you design yourself. It's possible that you'll realize you want to take a different approach with some of them; and if that happens it'll be good to be able to confidently find them all in the dictionary file.

Check First

Before coming up with your own brief, check the dictionary file to see if one exists already for the target word. Try to make this something you can do easily at any time. Learn the location of the dictionary file on disk. Familiarize yourself with the dictionary entry format. If you're on a UNIX system, a simple grep command will find all the entries for a given word. So for example, if you' use the word 'daughter' a lot, you might want to save a stroke from TKAU/TER, and make a brief. Before designing you're own brief, check the dictionary file:

$ grep \"daughter\" dict.json
"TKAU/TER": "daughter",
"TKAUG/TER": "daughter",
"TKAUGT/ER": "daughter",
"TKAUR": "daughter",
"TKAUT/ER": "daughter",
"TKAUT/TER": "daughter",

It looks like TKAUR has already been defined. In that case, there's no more work to do, unless you want to add another brief for that word.

Likewise, if you come up with what you think is the perfect brief for a word, don't forget to see if that stroke is already used in the dictionary file. For example, if you think PWHRAOF would make a great brief for 'blowfish', check the dictionary to see if that chord is already in use:

$ grep PWHRAOF /home/zbrown/.config/plover/dict.json
"PWHRAOF": "bulletproof",
"PWHRAOFP": "brooch",

It looks like PWHRAOF is already the brief for 'bulletproof'. In that case, you can decide which of the two words has a better claim to the brief. If you expect to use 'blowfish' a lot more than 'bulletproof', you could assign 'blowfish' to PWHRAOF instead.

Brief Community

When designing briefs, especially while you are just starting out, take advantage of your steno friends. Ask for opinions from the folks on the Plover mailing list. Maybe some of them will see a reason why the brief you're considering might cause problems for you later. Once you get the hang of it, your briefs will tend to be well-formed each time. But when you're starting out, the freedom to use any stroke for a brief can lead to trouble. It may not be obvious that there are good briefs and bad briefs, and that bad briefs are bad for a reason. The Plover community may help you figure out briefs that you'll like for a longer time.

Make It Easy

If a brief is hard to type, you might as well just use the phonetic form. Whenever you construct a brief, give some thought to the finger movements it requires, and to whether you'll find it comfortable to type.

Equally important is to make your briefs easy to remember. This means that whenever possible, you should try to follow some sort of memorable general pattern. The rest of this tutorial explains some simple principles that may help you design easy, memorable briefs.

Avoid Words And Word Parts

Don't choose a stroke that's already part of a multi-stroke word. For example, you might think SKOP would make a good brief for something, but it's already used by a number of words, including 'endoscopic': EPBD/SKOP/EUBG, 'kaleidoscopic': KHRAOEUD/SKOP/EUBG, and many others. If you use SKOP for a brief, you risk word boundary errors with all those other words.

One little brief might not seem like a big deal, but they add up. As you develop more and more briefs (which you will), the problem will become more and more visible to you until you find yourself having to perform special contortions for many words - memorizing suboptimal ways to type certain words and word combinations, just to avoid boundary errors. To truly fix the problem, you'd have to go back and expunge all the briefs that you had worked so hard to create and memorize. Bad scene.

The Essence Of The Word

It's easier to remember briefs that sound a bit like the word they represent. For example, 'extraordinary' is stroked KPRAORD. The brief sounds like 'ksrord', which may be a reminder of the full word.

The Uncommon Syllable

If one of the syllables of the target word is distinctive, you could try using it as the brief for that word. For example, 'English' is stroked TKPWHREURB, which sounds like 'glish'. This may seem to violate the rule about avoiding words and word parts; but really it's OK if the word parts are very rare. Check before using them. In the case of TKPWHREURB, the only dictionary entry that uses that stroke is the word 'English' itself. There are no conflicts at all.

First And Last Word Parts

Sometimes the start and end of a word make a good brief. So, 'something' can use the brief SG, and 'mechanism' can use the brief PHEUFPL (which sounds like 'mism').

Distinctive Parts Of Phrases

You can make briefs for phrases. Sometimes it can be useful to make a brief that incorporates the signature portions of each word in a given phrase. So for example, 'in other words' can be stroked TPHOERDZ, which sounds like 'nords'. And 'in addition' can be stroked TPHAGS, which sounds like 'nashun'

Multiple Inversions

According to Plover theory, you can only do one inversion per word. But sometimes you can squeeze a word into a single stroke if you use more than one inversion to do it. For example, 'designer' can be stroked STKAOEURPB.

Drop Stressed Vowels

Plover theory says you can drop unstressed vowels, but sometimes that's not enough to fit a word into a single stroke. Sometimes dropping a stressed vowel will manage it. For example, 'affect' can be stroked AFBGT. This avoids a conflict with 'effect' which is stroked canonically as TPEBGT. As another example, the word 'collar' can be stroked KHRAR. Without dropping the stressed vowel, it would require two strokes, either KOL/AR or KOL/HRAR.

Drop More Sounds

But sometimes you can squeeze a word into a single stroke by dropping a sound or two that still leaves the word very recognizable. For example, 'extraneous' can be stroked KPRAEUPBS if you drop the 't' in addition to the unstressed vowels. Otherwise it's a three stroke word.

The Asterisk Is Everyone's Friend

The * key has many uses. It can be typed on its own to undo previous strokes. In Plover theory the S* chord represents the 'z' sound.

In terms of constructing briefs, sometimes you can design a good brief, but it's already taken. In which case, maybe adding the * key will produce a stroke that's not yet in the dictionary file. For example, the word 'herb' is stroked HERB, but the capitalized proper name 'Herb' can be stroked H*ERB.

Single Keys For Word Prefixes And Suffixes

In some cases, you could squeeze a word into a single stroke by replacing its prefix with a single key. A good example is chording the 'com-' prefix as the K key. For example, you can stroke 'compound' as KPOUPBD, 'compress' as KPRES, and 'combat' as KPWAT.

Another good example is chording the 'ex-' prefix as the X key. For example, you can stroke 'exam' as KPAPL, and 'excited' as KPAOEUTD.

Another good example is chording the '-ly' suffix as L (although that could be thought of as simply dropping the unstressed 'y' sound). For example, 'highly' can be stroked HAOEUL, and 'slowly' can be stroked SHROEL.

The same technique could be used for other keys and prefixes.

Overlap Chords

Sometimes the keys you need for a particular sound have already been used by a different sound in the word. For example, the word 'dimple' needs both the 'mp' sound and the 'l' sound at the end of the word. But the 'mp' sound needs the *PL keys, which means the L key isn't available for the 'l' sound. So, just use the L key anyway, and stroke TK*EUPL.

As another example, 'shmear' needs both the 'sh' sound and the 'm' sound at the start of the word. But the 'sh' sound needs the SH keys, while the 'm' sound needs the PH keys. Both sounds need the H key, which would violate Plover theory. So, just use it anyway, and stroke SPHAO*ER. (also note that the * key is used to disambiguate 'shmear' from 'smear', which is stroked SPHAOER).

Single Keys For Related Sounds

The 'v' sound on the left side of the keyboard uses the SR keys, which are very popular letters. Sometimes you can squeeze a 'v' word into a single stroke by using the W key instead. For example, 'diverse' is stroked TKWERS, 'divorce' is stroked TKWORS, and 'diversion' is stroked TKWERGS.

The OEU Wildcard

Since 'oi' is the least common English diphthong, you can sometimes use its Plover chord OEU in a brief, without conflicting with other words. So taking one or a couple significant parts of a word, and joining them with OEU, might make a good brief. For example, 'carbon dioxide' could be thought of as being exemplified by its 'k' and 'x' sounds. Then by joining these with OEU, you get the brief for 'carbon dioxide', which is KOEUBGS.