2014-12-14

a Shorthand FAQ

Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while. I’ve been working on a FAQ for the Shorthand forum over on Reddit. Here’s the current draft…

Shorthand - Frequently Asked Questions

 

What is shorthand?


In general, the word “shorthand” refers to any system of symbols or abbreviations that make it possible for a person to write or to type much more quickly than ordinary “longhand” writing. The related term “stenography” also includes systems that use special machines for keyboarding or electronically transcribing spoken words.


What is the history of shorthand?


People who do a lot of writing (such as clerks, monks, scribes and secretaries) have been devising their own abbreviations for thousands of years. Beginning in the 1600s the inventors of these systems began to publish and advertise their creations. In the late 19th century there was a shorthand craze during which dozens of new systems were published and aggressively marketed.

In the middle of the 20th century, public interest in handwritten shorthand began to dwindle in many countries. The teaching of shorthand in American schools (with a tiny handful of exceptions) ended during the late 1980s.

People who take a lot of notes (scholars, diarists, executive assistants, etc) keep the art of shorthand alive and help provide information to newcomers. New systems of shorthand are still being invented and published.


What shorthand systems are used by the most people?


The majority of professional stenographers are using stenotype machines or stenomasks to record trials and legislative sessions and to do closed captioning for television.

As far as handwritten systems are concerned, Teeline currently seems to be the most-used system in the English-speaking world, based on the number of new textbooks being published every decade and the number of people taking classes. More than 4,000 journalism students in the UK take exams in Teeline proficiency every year.

Pitman is also doing well, especially in India. Gregg shorthand is also popular in North America.
Dozens of other systems are in use among smaller numbers of people.

Outside of the Anglosphere different types of shorthand have reached relatively high levels of usage. Some of them have been supported by national governments at various times, including Deutsche Einheitskurzschrift in Germany, Melins system in Sweden, System Polińskiego in Poland, and Государственная единая система стенографии in Russia.


What kind of pen works best for shorthand?


For most types of shorthand, any pen that glides across the page very easily will work. The Pentel Energel and Uniball Jetstream have good reputations. Visit the /r/pens subreddit for more info. A fountain pen combined with suitable paper will also produce excellent results. (Coarse paper will slow down a fountain pen and might clog the nib with fibers.) Visit the /r/fountainpens subreddit for additional information.

If you are learning Pitman or some other type of shorthand that uses a distinction between thin lines and thick lines, you will get best results with a fountain pen that has a slightly flexible nib. If you want to write Gregg shorthand as they did it back in the day, you can buy a restored Esterbrook fountain pen with an official Gregg-approved nib.


Which shorthand system should I learn?


Nobody can really tell you who you should marry, right? It's the same thing when you ask what shorthand system you should learn. There are many choices. If you have definite answers to the following questions you can narrow down your options:

Are you already strongly attracted to a system because of its appearance or because its rules seem especially logical to you? If so, that's probably the system you should learn.

Do you need the structure and encouragement of a classroom setting or an online course with a teacher who will check your work and point out your mistakes? If so, you should adopt whatever system is available to you in that format.

How much time do you have to learn shorthand? What maximum speed do you need to achieve? There is a tradeoff between ease of learning and maximum practical speed.

If you must be able to accurately record every word in rapid speech such as court testimony or legislative debate, you will need to spend two or three years intensively studying Gregg or Pitman, or learn how to use a stenotype machine.

On the other hand, if you suddenly find yourself in a class or a job where you need to write more quickly right now, you can rapidly raise your handwriting speed by learning one of the "alphabetic" systems such as Forkner, Speedwriting, Stenoscript, etc.

Do you have enough patience to order a hardcopy textbook and wait a week for it to arrive, or do you have an "it must be online right now dammit" mentality? If you are only willing to learn systems that are completely documented in free internet resources, your options are limited.

If you need to have all of your notes eventually stored in computer textfiles, you might consider learning a keyboard-based shorthand that can be typed directly into a tablet or laptop rather than a symbol-based system that would have to be transcribed into text.

Do you care about the existence or lack of an online community for the system you learn? If that's important to you, be sure to look around and see if there are any blogs, forums or tweets happening in the shorthand system that you're planning to learn.


What special terminology is used in discussing shorthand?


Like any other field of study, the description of shorthand systems involves some specialized jargon.

Shading refers to the use of thick and thin lines to create distinct symbols. For example Pitman shorthand uses a thin vertical line to represent T and a thick line for D. Shading is relatively easy to do if you use a fountain pen, somewhat possible to do with a pencil, and difficult with other writing instruments.

Position refers to a symbol having a different meaning depending on its placement. For example in Teeline shorthand a horizontal dash generally represents T when it is written high above the line of writing but the same symbol represents D when it is written on the line of writing.

The line of writing refers to the pre-printed line on the ruled notebook paper used for writing shorthand. It is similar to the concept in typography known as the baseline.

Word-sign or logogram refers to a brief symbol that arbitrarily represents a single word. In Gregg shorthand these are called "brief forms," in Teeline they are called "special outlines," in Forkner they are called "abbreviations," in early Pitman literature they are called "grammalogues." Almost every shorthand system has its own name for these symbols.

Phrasing refers to the practice of writing multiple word-signs together, without any space between them, as a way of increasing speed. For example, if \ stands for "and" and / stands for "the," you can combine them into a V-shaped symbol to represent the phrase "and the." (In Teeline, phrases are called "word groupings.")

Words per minute (abbreviated wpm or w.a.m. for words a minute) is a measurement of handwriting speed. In the English-speaking world, the average longhand writing speed is estimated to be around 25 or 30 wpm. The exact definition of "word" in "words per minute" varies from one shorthand system to another (in Gregg, 1.4 syllables = 1 word). Some people prefer to use measurements like syllables per minute or phonemes per minute when comparing shorthand systems.

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