Shorthand–Fluency and Legibility

Sample of Pitman Shorthand

Although shorthand can refer to any writing system intended to reduce the time and effort involved in writing, in modern times, the term has applied to two specific systems: Pitman Shorthand, introduced in 1837 by Sir Issac Pitman, and Gregg Shorthand, published in 1888 by John Robert Gregg. A more recent system, Teeline Shorthand, introduced in 1970, has become popular in the United Kingdom.

Readers should beware: shorthand has suffered from association with 20th-Century secretarial work. These aids to writing are neither simple nor easy to master. Some writing systems, such as the Chinese characters, practically cry out for an abbreviated and relatively straightforward version–and in fact such a shorthand has been used in China for centuries. In Europe, the first shorthand was created in the 16th Century, and both Sir Issac Newton and Samuel Pepys used shorthand when composing.

Perhaps nowhere else can we see as clearly as in shorthand the attempt to create writing that is both practical and beautiful. Specifically: twenty words per minute is the average speed for writing; when using shorthand, speeds in excess of 280 wpm have been recorded. And Gregg Shorthand, for instance, has a graceful, appealing visual quality often missing from alphabet-based writing.

How, we might wonder, does shorthand achieve such improvements in speed and visual quality? Simplified spelling, dropped vowels, distinctions between stroke-length and thickness, and phonemic orthography are some of the techniques employed. And individual stenographers (people whose use shorthand) often introduce specific improvements and accommodations into their writing method.

In other words, shorthand allows personalized writing–which can lead to problems in reading. Some shorthands address this problem by using the standard alphabet for the language they record, a solution that also makes the system easier to learn. But alphabet and abjad-based shorthands are inevitably more difficult to write, reducing compositional speed. That is the nub of the problem with shorthand (or any writing system): the trade-offs between speed, fluency, and legibility. Letterforms that are more difficult to write are usually easier to read.

The final point to make when talking about alternative or simplified writing systems: improvements in composition, whether in writing or in ease of reading, result from better instruction. Having both the traditional writing system and an alternative, phonetic shorthand or alphabet at our disposal will increase the intelligence and ease with which we transcribe information, argument, and feeling.


Related RT Posts: 1) Quikscript, an English Alphabet for Everyone; 2) Hangul, Literacy, and Culture–What an Alphabet Can Do For You


Image: Pitman-2000 Example; WikiCommons; Public Domain

  1. August 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I enjoyed this post! I was taught Pitman in high school, used it only during a brief, boring secretarial career and fell asleep while “taking dictation”. In my subsequent career as journalist, writer and editor, I erased Pitman fom my mind. Perhaps I should not have done that.

    • August 11, 2012 at 4:39 am

      IPW: i’ve always been grateful that i took a very good typing class in high school; now i wish that they had offered shorthand as well…another “useless” skill that may experience a comeback, i think. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! RT

  2. dmarshall58
    September 17, 2012 at 11:21 am

    A fascinating post. I often wish I’d mastered the skill of shorthand–not only because it would allow me to take better notes but also because the forms are beautiful. For someone with a caligraphic bent, it’s interesting to think about the ways pen strokes communicate meaning. The combination of abstaction, fluency, and expressiveness amazes me.

  3. November 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Nice! Like the artistic potential of shorthand. Having only a monotheistic approach to writing limits the flexibility of the mind. It may seem to increase clarity of communication, but then it can also oversimplfy and negate the complexities of the mind..

  4. December 31, 2012 at 12:45 am

    I didn’t even know that short hand still existed.

  5. February 21, 2013 at 8:27 am

    I still use shorthand, I have always seen it as another language or like learning to read music, a really special skill in my opinion. I also studied graphology so have always been fascinated with language in all of its forms.

  6. February 26, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Just the fact that shorthand exists, and that there are people who use and understand it has always boggled my mind– a wonderful testament to human invention. Great post, thanks!

    • February 28, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      MA: and thanks for your enthusiasm…shorthand is a *way* under-appreciated resource! RT

  7. February 28, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Fascinating. I always regretted not having had the chance to learn shorthand. I did take typing in high school (viewed by some at the time as a Mickey Mouse subject). I type faster than I think, it seems. It is by far one of the most useful skills I acquired. More precious, say, than basic programming.

    I learned on an a proper typewriter, not a computer (this will date me!). And the experience led me to take a very keen interest in typography (typesetting, fonts, etc.). Shorthand seems more arcane to me, almost whimsical, in a clever, mysterious sort of way.

    Thanks for a great post and for your kind visits on my site.

    • March 1, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      ec: i actually took penmenship classes when overseas (in the long ago and far away) with an ink-cartridge pen…later, i took typing classes, and many a time, as the teacher told us, the skill has come to my rescue. Finally, in high school, there was the selectric typewriters and letraset…and then my first computer (at work) after college.

      i’ve always been a monster doodler, and this may have something to do with my interest in calligraphy and shorthand…but if shorthand and alternative alphabets can help kids to learn how to read and write, i’m all for them.

      you’re beautiful, brilliant, and brave–keep on blogging and being you! RT

      • March 1, 2013 at 5:35 pm

        I learned to write with one of those ink-cartridge fountain pens…

        I’m a keen doodler myself. But this note wasn’t supposed to be about me: I really just wanted to thank you for the very kind compliment: I’m feeling all buoyant from the praise.

  8. May 12, 2013 at 3:38 am

    I’m not sure exactly why but this blog is loading very slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check
    back later and see if the problem still exists.

  9. July 2, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    I remember really looking forward to learning shorthand when I got into high school. Then we moved, and it wasn’t offered at my school. It’s rather beautiful to look at (at least to me). Enjoyed the post.

  1. October 4, 2011 at 9:16 pm
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