Shorthand today

Frances Tew is a Dickens Decoder. She has taught Teeline shorthand for twenty years to students on journalism courses. In the first of two blogs she tells us what modern shorthand is all about.

Who would want to learn shorthand today and why?

Generally, the people who use written shorthand today in the UK are journalists. The need for shorthand secretaries has all but dried up – voice recognition and personal computers mean most people are happy to produce their own communications and documents. Even stenography machines (stenography is the proper name for shorthand), which used to be used to report court and Parliamentary proceedings, are disappearing in favour of recordings which are then transcribed. This can work well for anything that has to be reported verbatim, but not for a journalist with a tight deadline who needs to produce a short piece from a long interview.

A photograph of a laptop computer, voice recorder and headphones, and notepad and pen
Image © svitlini –

Imagine recording an interview with a VIP in a hotel lobby. What could go wrong? You might have set the sound levels too low and the background noise obliterates what it is your interviewee is saying and they are so important that you can’t phone back to check your quotes. They might insert lots of irrelevant details and instead of sitting back and not writing anything, which is often enough to bring your interviewee rapidly back on track, you record every single word and then have to go backwards and forwards through the recording to find the bits you want. So, although shorthand may seem a bit old-fashioned, no journalist who has learnt it would ever be without it.

A photograph of an open book with a page of Gregg shorthand
Photo of a Gregg Shorthand course book published in 1936. Courtesy of Christopher Newsom, via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED.

Dickens’s shorthand system, Gurney, is only one in a long line of English systems that have been invented over the last 400 years. Many of these systems were just improvements on a previous one, but with a new name. The system most people have heard of is the one that followed Gurney – Pitman. It was taught from the mid-1800s to the late twentieth century to school-leavers of both sexes, often at ‘night school’. As usual, the Pitman system went through several incarnations, as improvements were made over the years. It was the way into a better job, as a secretary or administrator. Almost as popular with many people was a system devised by John Robert Gregg, and there are still some Gregg writers around today. Both Pitman and Gregg were popular in the US too.

The Teeline system developed in a similar way. A British teacher of Pitman shorthand, James Hill, devised the system in 1968. It takes less time to learn and can still deliver high speeds, though generally not as high as the Pitman system. Because of the relative ease of learning, and the fact that extremely high speeds are not essential for journalists, Teeline is the system taught almost exclusively in Britain now.

Lined paper with thirteen lines of Teeline shorthand written in black ink
The beginning of the ‘Nelson’ shorthand exercise from Arthur Stone’s teaching notebooks, written in Teeline shorthand. Courtesy of Frances Tew.

What is ‘good’ shorthand?

Shorthand is only a form of handwriting and, like longhand, as long as it can be read back it serves its purpose.  Any writer can usually read back their own handwriting but it might not be so easy for someone else to read. However, it is particularly important that a shorthand document can be read by other shorthand writers because a journalist’s shorthand notebook can be a legal document; a ‘contemporaneous’ note will be accepted in a court of law as representing what was actually said. That means that the notebook must have every page numbered to ensure nothing has been removed. Each entry must be labelled and dated, and an independent shorthand writer must confirm what has been written.

Like all shorthand writers of the time Dickens could easily transcribe his own notes, but for quickness parliamentary shorthand writers would have their notebooks taken away every 30 minutes. A clerk would then read aloud their shorthand which would then be written out in longhand by another clerk. The shorthand writers could carry on taking down proceedings even, according to an anecdote in Butler’s History of British Shorthand, in their sleep!

Accuracy is all. It is no good taking a speech down at high speed and missing something out, changing words or writing so fast that no one can read what is written. Speed comes with practice but accuracy is paramount right from the start. Interestingly, if a passage is too fast and the student gets left behind they will invent what they think was said and then swear blind that that was what they had heard!

There are several ways that errors can creep in when taking down shorthand. If speech is too fast, a student can miss out a complete sentence without even realising it, as the sense of the passage might not have suffered. Or they might give up halfway through a sentence and decide to start from where they can hear being read next. They might have got stuck on the outline for a word they had never written before and so got left behind and missed out a few words. If it was a really difficult word, they might have put down one or two letters then moved on, thinking they would remember later what the word was – but then not remember it. They might have unconsciously changed a word to a synonym. Maybe they had just heard a number, or a day of the week, forgotten what it was and made a guess (context won’t generally help with words like that). They might have taken the whole thing down and then not been able to decipher some words, either because they had written them wrong, or in a hurry, or completely correctly and just not been able to remember or work out what they were.

As with longhand writing, someone’s shorthand quickly becomes quite individual. If their longhand writing slopes one way, so will their shorthand. They will invent their own abbreviations, as Dickens seems to have done. As they progress with their practice, their shorthand will look more and more mature. Looking back at old shorthand notebooks is like looking at your primary school exercise books and seeing how your longhand writing improved with time and practice. Teachers can easily tell how mature a student’s shorthand is, and enjoy seeing it improve. They very quickly recognise each student’s shorthand, just as everyone’s longhand is recognisable to people who know them.  

This would also apply when looking at shorthand written in the past. With a few examples of Dickens’s shorthand notes it should be quite possible to recognise – from the slope, the size of the ‘letters’, the spacing, the way certain words are written – that they were all written by the same person, just as Dickens’s longhand writing is easily recognisable to anyone who has studied it.

How difficult is it to learn shorthand?

A black and white photograph of a teacher. A man in a suit teaches a group of women sitting at desks. On a noticeboard at the back is a graphic of the cartoon character Charlie Brown with the caption 'Happiness is doing shorthand'.
Night Adult Education Classes c.1965, photograph by Warren K. Leffler. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Public domain.

People learn shorthand after they have learnt longhand and the fact that they already know longhand can cause problems. The English language has grown up keeping relics of archaic spelling; pronunciation often does not match the spelling. Overall, reading and writing English is pretty difficult for us as children and, once learnt, it is generally stuck fast in our heads and hard to replace with shorthand when we are adults. How do we do it?

In order to be read and written speedily, shorthand has to leave out unnecessary letters and the necessary ones need to have a form that is much quicker to write than the longhand alphabet. It also needs special symbols for common groups of letters like -ing, -tion, and abbreviations for many common words. So a student new to shorthand has to forget the actual spelling of words and only write those letters (in shorthand) necessary for a word to be read back correctly. Words in shorthand are usually shown ‘phonetically’ – as they sound – and using phonetic letters rather than those used in normal spelling can be a challenge for some people. As with learning many skills, it relies on hand, eye, ear and brain coordination – a bit like playing a musical instrument or driving a car. If it took you several attempts to pass your driving test, you might just find that you need to do more shorthand practice than a luckier fellow student!

What other problems might students have when learning shorthand? First, since the advent of personal computers, people do not write a lot in longhand. It is a good idea to practice writing as fast as possible in longhand, just to get the writing muscles exercised. It is also easy to get discouraged if you just can’t seem to speed up. Sometimes it is just a matter of trying a different pen or pencil, or splashing out on top quality notebooks with shiny slippery paper, rather than a cheap supermarket version. More often, it is simply a matter of keeping going with the practice and knowing that speed will suddenly increase.

No one will be able to take down a speech ‘verbatim’ unless they have put in lots of practice. We often forget how much practice we did as children learning to write longhand, and we have to replicate that in shorthand. The problem here is that at primary school we had hours and hours of practice in school. Once you have left school you usually have a day job and a social life, so it needs a lot of commitment to give evenings out a miss in order to practise your shorthand.

The advantages of being a shorthand writer

Even today interviewees are fascinated that their interviewer is taking down what they say in shorthand. It seems an almost magical skill – as well it should, given the long hours and commitment that have been put into learning it. It is a tool of the trade for journalists which makes their job much easier and earns them respect and often amazement from outsiders.

Today we have various means of recording speech so shorthand is not quite as essential as it used to be, but in Victorian England it was the only means of taking down spoken words to record them accurately for posterity. Imagine how much more impressive shorthand writing would have been in Dickens’s day. Some people could read enough to carry out their day to day work but writing was seen as a separate skill. Many people could not even sign their own name. So writing as fast as people could speak in a strange script would have seemed almost magical.

Next blog: How do we teach shorthand? Was Dickens a good shorthand teacher?