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Wednesday 3 July 2019

250 Words A Minute

Funny what you find to read in holiday cottages.

This year among the usual Readers’ Digests and paperback novels in a well-stocked bookcase we found a history of hymns which gave us an uplifting Sunday morning sing-song, and Teach Yourself Pitmans Shorthand.

No doubt, many will remember using shorthand, but it has long been a mystery to me. In my early working days, bosses dictated letters and reports to secretaries for typing. Secretaries kept up with what was said, no matter how quickly, by writing in shorthand. Journalists also used it to record verbatim court proceedings and interviews. To me, it looked like impenetrable lines of squiggles. It might as well have been in Persian or Arabic.

Not being sufficiently important to dictate to a secretary, I usually had to draft things for typing in ordinary longhand. By the time I’d climbed up the hierarchy we had computers so I had to type content myself. Shorthand remained a dark art. 

In the holiday cottage, I left the book out on the breakfast table with a notepad to practice. Obviously, no one is going to learn shorthand in a week but at least I might gain some understanding of how it works.

Pitmans shorthand (there are other forms) uses a system of heavy and light, straight and curved strokes, together with dots, dashes, hooks, loops and circles to represent the sounds of the English language.

Here are some exceedingly basic examples:

  • The ‘p’ sound is represented by a lightly written \ and the similar sounding but voiced ‘b’ by a heavier \
  • Similarly, ‘t’ and ‘d’ are represented by a light and heavy | and |
  • ‘ch’ and ‘j’ are represented by a light and heavy / and /
  • Consonants at the start of words are written above the line and those at the end below.
  • Vowels are represented by strokes placed before or after a consonant, such as light and heavy – and to represent short ‘o’ or long ‘oa’ sounds (i.e. the sounds not the spelling so 'note' and 'boat' are the same).
  • ‘s’ is represented by a small loop on either the top or bottom of the consonant depending on whether it occurs before or after.

It gets much more complicated with marks for other vowels and consonants, for common prefixes and suffixes, and various simplifications, but just with the above you can write:

Even from these simple examples, it is easy to see how shorthand can be written more quickly than longhand. The preface to the book says:
The compilers wish to place on record their acknowledgement of the help rendered in the preparation of this volume by Miss Emily D. Smith, only Holder of the National Union of Teachers’ Certificate for shorthand speed writing at 250 words a minute.
She achieved this on the 22nd March 1934 during a five-minute test using a passage of 1,250 words. Two hundred and fifty words a minute for five minutes! That’s more than four a second. How can anyone speak that fast to dictate them? She must have spent all her time practising. Perhaps that’s why she was only ‘Miss’ Emily D. Smith.

But no, that completely unacceptable feline and sexist remark is wrong. She married Thomas Law in Croydon in 1935 and moved to Glasgow and later to Birmingham. I found these:

What an amazing skill! Especially when combined with high-speed typing. It was clearly equal to skills needed in many higher paid men’s jobs, say, in manufacturing and transport. Yet they were “only” shorthand-typists and paid as such.

Actually, I did once dictate a letter. I remember one phrase exactly. I said, “For the sake of clarity, we set out the details in the table below.” It came out as “For the sake of charity, …” and would have gone off like that to the Inspector of Taxes had a partner not spotted it. I got rollocked for not checking it more carefully.

Since returning from holiday I have been playing with this shorthand transcription resource and can therefore sign my name as:

I can just about see how it works, e.g. the initial ‘T’ and ‘D’, although these are more complex two-syllable words. And no, I didn’t pinch the book from the cottage. I put it back in the bookcase. I got to the end of Lesson 1.

What did you do on your holiday?


  1. I once tried to learn shorthand. I never got very far but I found it fascinating as a language system. The misspelling makes me think of spellchecker - how many texts have we all sent with completely the wrong words because we didn't check the spellchecker?

    1. Fascinating and also difficult. I reckon it would take several months of real determination. There can't be many places it's still in use, even with stenography machines. Courtrooms maybe.

  2. I tried to learn shorthand when it was offered as a supplementary subject in 6th Form, alongside the mainstream A Level subjects. I think the only symbol I can remember, and still use, is the one for the word *with*.

    1. Is that like a superscript c?
      I suspect we all invent our own to an extent. For lecture notes I used .| and |. for before and after (and the same idea for above and below) but they did not seem to be in the shorthand book. I had various other abbreviations like C19 (century) and others I'd only be able to bring to mind now if needed.

    2. Was it offered to boys as well?

    3. It would have been available for both boys and girls but I can't imagine any boy back then wanting to attend the classes with us!

    4. For us it was boys woodwork and metalwork, girls domestic science and needlework.

  3. When I started out in my profession in 1982, there was still one old partner in the firm who dictated to a secretary who knew shorthand. The rest of us used dictaphones but even those have gone the way of the dodo bird now. Everyone's expected to do their own "keyboarding" these days, LOL!

    1. I'd forgotten about dictaphones. Was never important enough to be able to use one of those either.

  4. And I took a job for which I was expected to know shorthand. I stopped at the library on the way home, and worked my way down the stack until I came across a gem of a book, Hy-speed Longhand. In one evening I had it mastered. Basically, all vowels are eliminated, and a few symbols thrown in. The letter "e" stands for "the" for example. Saved my job, that book.

    1. Yes! Why let a little thing like that stand in your way. I'm sure you were vastly undervalued.

  5. I guess it is difficult to play guitar with a shorthand. Mind you wasn't Eric Clapton's nickname Shorthand? Yes that's it - Eric "Shorthand" Clapton.


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