shorthand, any brief, rapid system of writing that may be used in transcribing, or recording, the spoken word. Such systems, many having characters based on the letters of the alphabet, were used in ancient times; the shorthand of Tiro, Cicero's amanuensis, was used for centuries. Modern systems date from 1588, when Timothy Bright published his 500-odd symbols for words; a French system was developed by Jacques Cossard in 1651, a German one in 1679. In 1602, Rev. John Willis published the Arte of Stenographie; there followed dozens of systems before 1837, when the shorthand of Isaac Pitman appeared. This, with improvements, is in wide use in English-speaking countries today; it is perhaps the most rapid shorthand system and is favored by many court and convention reporters. The Pitman system makes use of shading (a line heavily drawn has a meaning different from that of the same line lightly drawn) and of differences in slope and position on a given line; it is geometric in outline and is difficult to master but makes possible very great speed. John Robert Gregg (1867-1948) in 1888 published a popular system of business shorthand that is still in use today. Its outlines are curved and natural, resembling those of ordinary script; need for lifting the pen was eliminated as much as possible, so that a cursive motion is used; there is no shading, but variation in length of line indicates variation in meaning. The outlines were scientifically worked out for simplicity and writing ease. Other shorthand systems employ shortened forms of longhand, e.g., Speedwriting, used where legibility is the principal concern. On the Continent, F. X. Gabelsberger (Germany) and Émile Duployé (France) originated widely used systems; in South America and Canada, the Sloan-Duployan shorthand is favored. Rapid writing with shorthand machines has also developed. Use of keyboard machines such as the Stenotype or Stenograph machines is extensive in courts of law and other places where great speed, silence, and portability of equipment are essential in recording speech; such machines are now computerized, with the transcribed text appearing on a small display screen. Even though now virtually all offices use computers and word-processing software for correspondence, shorthand continues to have a role in business.

See H. Glatte, Shorthand Systems of the World (1959); L. A. Leslie, The Story of Gregg Shorthand (1964); J. R. Gregg, Gregg Shorthand Dictionary (1972).

Shorthand is an abbreviated and/or symbolic writing method that increases speed or brevity of writing as compared to a normal method of writing a language. The process of writing in shorthand is called stenography, from the Greek stenos (narrow) and graphē or graphie (writing). It has also been called brachygraphy, from Greek brachys (short) and tachygraphy, from Greek tachys (swift, speedy), depending on whether compression or speed of writing is the goal. Many forms of shorthand exist. A typical shorthand system provides symbols or abbreviations for words and common phrases, which can allow someone well trained in the system to write as quickly as people speak. Abbreviation methods are alphabet-based and use different abbreviating approaches. Speedwriting by Emma Dearborn requires memorization of a unique abbreviation to a corresponding word.

Shorthand was used more widely in the past, before the invention of recording and dictation machines. Until recently, shorthand was considered an essential part of secretarial training as well as being useful for journalists. Although the primary use of shorthand has been to record oral dictation or discourse, some systems are used for compact expression. For example, health-care professionals may use shorthand notes in medical charts and correspondence. Shorthand notes are typically temporary, intended either for immediate use, or for later transcription to longhand.


Classical Antiquity

The earliest known indication of shorthand systems is from Ancient Greece, namely the Acropolis stone (Akropolisstein) from mid-4th century BC. The marble slab shows a writing system primarily based on vowels, using certain modifications to indicate consonants.

Hellenistic tachygraphy is reported from the 2nd century BC onwards, though there are indications that it might be older. The oldest datable reference is a contract from Middle Egypt, stating that Oxyrhynchos gives his Greek slave to the "semeiographer" Apollonios for two years to be taught shorthand writing. Hellenistic tachygraphy consisted of word stem signs and word ending signs. Over time, many syllabic signs were developed.

In Ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Tiro (103 BC–4 BC), a slave and later a freedman of Cicero, developed the Tironian notes so he could write down Cicero's speeches. The Tironian notes consisted of word stem abbreviations (notae) and of word ending abbreviations (titulae). The original Tironian notes consisted of about 4000 signs but new signs were introduced so that their number might increase to as many as 13,000. In order to have a less complex writing system, a syllabic shorthand script was used sometimes.

It is possible that the use of shorthand in antiquity was associated in some way with the Art of Memory, which used notae, in combination with memorized places and images, as the basis of mnemonic training in the rhetorical tradition. Shorthand notae may have also been an integral part of a 'magical' art of memory, the Ars Notoria.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Tironian notes were not used any more to transcribe speeches, though they were still known and taught, particularly during the Carolingian Renaissance. After the 11th century, however, they were mostly forgotten.

When many monastery libraries were secularized in the course of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, long-forgotten manuscripts of Tironian notes were rediscovered.

Imperial China

In imperial China, clerks used an abbreviated, highly cursive form of characters to record court proceedings and criminal confessions. These records were used to create more formal transcripts. One cornerstone of imperial court proceedings was that all confessions had to be acknowledged by the accused's signature, personal seal, or thumbprint, requiring fast writing. Versions of this technique survived in clerical professions into the 20th century A.D.

Modern Europe and America

An interest in shorthand or "short-writing" developed towards the end of the 16th century in England. In 1588 Timothy Bright published his Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character which introduced a system with 500 arbitrary signs resembling words. Bright's book was followed by a number of others, including John Willis's Art of Stenography in 1602, Edmond Willis's An abbreviation of writing by character in 1618, and Thomas Shelton's Short Writing in 1626 (later re-issued as Tachygraphy).

Shelton's system became very popular and is well known because it was used by Samuel Pepys for his diary and for many of his official papers, such as his letter copy books. It was also used by Sir Isaac Newton in some of his notebooks. Shelton borrowed heavily from his predecessors, especially Edmond Willis. Each consonant was represented by an arbitrary but simple symbol, while the five vowels were represented by the relative positions of the surrounding consonants. Thus the symbol for B with symbol for T drawn directly above it represented "bat", while B with T below it meant "but"; top-right represented "e", middle-right "i", and lower-right "o". A vowel at the end of a word was represented by a dot in the appropriate position, while there were additional symbols for initial vowels. This basic system was supplemented by further symbols representing common prefixes and suffixes.

One drawback of Shelton's system was that there was no way to distinguish long and short vowels or diphthongs; so the b-a-t sequence could mean "bat", or "bait", or "bate", while b-o-t might mean "boot", or "bought", or "boat". The reader needed to use the context to work out which alternative was meant. The main advantage of the system was that it was easy to learn and to use. It was extremely popular, and under the two titles of Short Writing and Tachygraphy, Shelton's book ran to more than 20 editions between 1626 and 1710.

Shelton's chief rivals were Theophilus Metcalfe's Stenography or Short Writing (1633) which was in its "55th edition" by 1721, and Jeremiah Rich's system of 1654, which was published under various titles including The penns dexterity compleated (1669). Another notable English shorthand system creator of the 17th century was William Mason (fl. 1672-1709) who published Arts Advancement in 1682.

Modern-looking geometric shorthand was introduced with John Byrom's New Universal Shorthand of 1720. Samuel Taylor published a similar system in 1786, the first English shorthand system to be used all over the English-speaking world. Thomas Gurney published Brachygraphy in the mid-18th century.

In 1834 in German, Franz Xaver Gabelsberger published his Gabelsberger shorthand. Gabelsberger, who ignored the English stenography tradition, based his shorthand not on geometrical shapes but on the shapes used in handwriting script.

Taylor's system was superseded by Pitman shorthand, first introduced in 1837 by Sir Isaac Pitman, M.P., and improved many times since. Pitman's system has been used all over the English-speaking world and has been adapted to many other languages, including Latin. Pitman's system uses a phonemic orthography. For this reason, it is sometimes known as phonography, meaning 'sound writing' in Greek. One of the reasons this system allows fast transcription is that vowel sounds are optional when only consonants are needed to determine a word. The availability of a full range of vowel symbols, however, makes possible complete accuracy.

Pitman shorthand is still in widespread use, but in the USA and some other parts of the world it has been largely superseded by the Gregg shorthand that was first published in 1888 by John Robert Gregg. This system was influenced by the handwriting shapes Gabelsberger had introduced. Gregg's shorthand, like Pitman's, is phonetic, but has the simplicity of being "light-line". While Pitman's system uses thick and thin strokes to distinguish related sounds, Gregg's uses only thin strokes and makes some of the same distinctions by the length of the stroke.

The record for fast writing with Pitman shorthand is 350 wpm during a two-minute test by Nathan Behrin in 1922, although this result has been questioned.


Geometric and script systems

Geometric shorthand is based on circles, parts of circles, and straight lines placed strictly horizontally, vertically or diagonally. The first modern shorthand systems were geometric. Examples include Pitman Shorthand, Boyd's Syllabic Shorthand, Samuel Taylor's Universal Stenography and the Duployan system used in French which formed the basis for the Inuktitut, Cree and Kamloops Wawa (used for Chinook Jargon) writing systems.

Script shorthand is based on the motions of ordinary handwriting. The first system of this type was published under the title Cadmus Britanicus by Simon Bordley, in 1787. However, the first practical system was the German Gabelsberger shorthand of 1834. This class of system is now common in all more recent German shorthand systems, Austria, Italy, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, other Eastern European countries, Russia, and elsewhere.

Script-Geometric, or semi-script shorthand is based on the ellipse. It can be considered a compromise between the geometric systems and the script systems. The first such system was that of George Carl Märes in 1885. However, the most successful system of this type was the one introduced by John Robert Gregg in 1888, who had studied not only the geometric English systems, but also the German Stolze stenography, a script shorthand. Other examples include Teeline Shorthand and Thomas Natural Shorthand.

Systems resembling standard writing

Some shorthand systems attempted to ease learning by using characters from the Latin alphabet. Such systems have often been described as alphabetic, and purists might claim that such systems are not 'true' shorthand. However, these non-symbol systems do have value for students who cannot dedicate the years necessary to master a symbol shorthand. Non-symbol shorthands cannot be written at the speeds theoretically possible with symbol systems - 200 words per minute or more - but require only a fraction of the time to acquire a useful speed of between 60 and 100 words per minute.

Non-symbol systems often supplement alphabetic characters by using punctuation marks as additional characters, giving special significance to capitalised letters, and sometimes using additional non-alphabetic symbols. Examples of such systems include Stenoscript, Stenospeed, Speedwriting, Forkner shorthand, Quickhand and Alpha Hand. However, there are some pure alphabetic systems, including Keyscript Shorthand, Personal Shorthand, SuperWrite, Easy Script Speed Writing, and Agiliwriting, which limit their symbols to purely alphabetic characters. These have the added advantage that they can also be typed - for instance, onto a computer, PDA, or cellphone. Interestingly, early editions of Speedwriting were also adapted so that they could be written on a typewriter, and therefore would possess the same advantage.

Varieties of vowel representation

Shorthand systems can be classified according to the way that vowels are represented:

  • expression by 'normal' vowel signs (with no fundamental distinction between vowel signs and consonant signs), e.g. in Gregg;
  • expression of the first vowel by the height of the word in relation to the line, no necessary expression of subsequent vowels, e.g. in Pitman (with optional expression of the vowels by detached diacritics added to the word);
  • expression of the vowels by the width of the joining stroke that leads to the following consonant sign, the height of the following consonant sign in relation to the preceding one, and the line pressure of the following consonant sign, e.g. in most German shorthand systems;
  • use of detached vowel signs, such as dots, ticks and other marks, written around the consonant signs;
  • no expression of the individual vowels at all except for a dot before the word for any initial vowel and a dot after the word for any ending vowel, e.g. in Taylor (in which alphabet is spelled ’lfbt);
  • expression of a vowel by the shape of a stroke, with the consonant indicated by orientation, e.g. in Boyd.

Machine shorthand systems

Traditional shorthand systems are written on paper with a stenographic pencil or a stenographic pen. Some consider that only these are shorthand systems strictly speaking.

Machine shorthand is a common term for writing produced by a stenotype, a specialized keyboard. However, there are other shorthand machines used worldwide, including: Velotype; Palantype in the UK; Grandjean Stenotype, used extensively in France and French-speaking countries; Michela Stenotype, used extensively in Italy; and Stenokey, used in Bulgaria and elsewhere. See also Speech-to-Text Reporter a person using a form of realtime shorthand originally designed to assist deaf people.

Common modern English shorthand systems

One of the most widely known forms of shorthand is still the Pitman method described above, originally developed by Isaac Pitman in 1837. Isaac's brother Benn Pitman, who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, was responsible for introducing the method to America. The method has been adapted for 15 languages. Although Pitman's method was extremely popular at first and is still commonly used, especially in the UK, its popularity has been superseded especially in the USA by the method developed by J.R. Gregg in 1888.

In the UK, Teeline shorthand is now more commonly taught and used than Pitman. Teeline is the recommended system of the National Council for the Training of Journalists. Other less commonly used systems in the UK are Pitman 2000, PitmanScript, Speedwriting and Gregg.

List of shorthand systems

See also



  • R. Latham and W. Matthews, Introduction to The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Volume I, pp. xlvii–liv (for Thomas Shelton's shorthand system and Pepys' use of it). ISBN 0-7135-1551-1
  • Richard S. Westfall, "Short-Writing and the State of Newton's Conscience, 1662", Notes and Records of the Royal Society 18 (1963), 10-16.
  • Pitmans College (1975). Shorthand. Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-05687-8
  • Walter Kaden (2000), Neue Geschichte der Stenografie.
  • In Bram Stoker's Dracula, Johnathan Harker's journal(in the story) is writen entirely in shorthand.

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