Shorthand is an abbreviated 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.

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 symbols each representing one word. 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. 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.

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.

Pitman Shorthand

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. 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.

Gregg Shorthand

Pitman shorthand is still in widespread use, but in the USA and some other parts of the world it has been largely superseded by Gregg shorthand, which was first published in 1888 by John Robert Gregg. 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.

Modern English Shorthand Systems

One of the most widely known forms of shorthand is still the Pitman shorthand method described above. 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 also the most common method of shorthand taught to New Zealand journalists, who typically require 80 words per minute to obtain certification. 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.