Shorthand Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Shorthand is a method of writing that is designed to maximise speed of writing and reading back. It does this by using a symbol for each of the consonant sounds, and modifying these to show the vowels. Many people say that it looks like written Arabic, but it is far simpler, and totally systematic.

Shorthand writing was around in Greek and Roman times1, but it was not until 1835 that the first phonetic2 system was devised, by Isaac Pitman.

Shorthand writing is easy to learn, and is a useful skill for anyone.

How Does it Work?

The most important point to grasp is that shorthand is not a new language, but merely a different way of writing English. The second thing is that it is written phonetically.

Pitman shorthand works like this: there are 24 consonant sounds in spoken English, and each of these is represented using one stroke, such as curved lines, quarter circles, etc. When a word is to be written, its outline, or the shape of all its consonants joined together, is drawn first. Next, the vowels are drawn around the edges. Vowels take the form of short strokes or dots.

The key to the system is that in addition to this simple base, there are an incredible number of speed tricks that allow it to be written fast.

How Can I Learn?

Self-teaching manuals are available3, as are Pitman Shorthand learning courses - typically run by Technical Colleges or their vocational school equivalents in other countries.

For learning advice, the most important thing is to practice regularly. Don't worry too much if you have to keep looking at the key, so long as you get used to handling the pen, and drawing the outlines accurately. Being able to write well is far more important than reading, although reading is an easier skill to pick up. Practice reading first, and become proficient with that, because then you know what it is that you want to be writing.

Pitman vs Teeline

Teeline is a newer system than Pitman Shorthand, designed to be easier to learn, and is most often used by journalists. It is slower than Pitman for recording spoken words, but its ease of learning makes up for this.

The other advantage of Teeline is that it can be used in another language without having to learn anything new. Versions of Pitman have been designed for other languages, but they may be fundamentally different to the English form. However, this only means that the speed difference between Pitman and Teeline is even more marked in other languages, if you are willing to put in the effort.

Why Should I Be Bothered?

The simple answer is because it is very often useful to be able to write at speeds of up to 300 words a minute.

The More complete answer is... With the next generation of PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) being more than powerful enough to process handwriting written on touch sensitive screens, the speed of input will become more important4. The only way to further increase speed is to change the manner of writing, which is where shorthand comes in.

1Indeed Cicero, the famous orator, had a shorthand speech writer.2Where a word is written as it sounds, or is pronounced.3A good example being Teach yourself Pitman 2000 Shorthand, published by Hodder and Stoughton. The ISBN is 0-340-37629-5.4Currently there are PDAs that read handwriting, but they can only read longhand, partly because it was thought that users wouldn't want to learn a new language, but mostly because shorthand uses many shortcuts to enhance speed, and these are currently too complex for a mere automaton to cope with.

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