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Personal Shorthand

An Introduction to Shorthand

The average business speaker or school lecturer might speak at 120 to 160 words per minute; the average person writes, longhand, at 25 to 30 words per minute. The disparity is the basis for the development and use of shorthand.

There are three kinds of written shorthand: symbol, alphabetic, and hybrid shorthands. Symbol shorthands are just what they sound like, completely new written representations for English. Hybrid shorthands are a combination of symbols and alphabetic characters. In the mid-1950s one completely alphabetic shorthand, called Briefhand was introduced by Allied Publishers, in Portland, Oregon.

When Allied Publishers went out of business, the rights to Briefhand were acquired by one of its authors, Dr. C. Theo Yerian (formerly Head of the Department of Business Education and Secretarial Studies at Oregon State University for 30 years). Briefhand was renamed and republished by National Book Company, also of Portland.

Since then, Personal Shorthand (PS) has been the only completely alphabetic shorthand system.

Historically, the best-known shorthand system in the United States was probably Gregg shorthand. In the British Commonwealth, Pitman was the dominant shorthand. Both of these are symbolic shorthand systems. In the U.S. and Canada there are a dozen or more hybrid shorthands, such as Forkner, Stenoscript, Stenospeed, and Speedwriting, which use both symbols and letters of the alphabet to one degree or another.

Most people think of shorthand as a skill only for secretaries, and, for many decades, it was. However, as new technologies began to enter the workplace: first, recording devices practical for the business office, then memory typewriters, followed by specialized computers for word processing, and, finally, general purpose computers which could perform many office tasks. Those technologies were once bulky and heavy, but can now be accessed remotely from the other side of the world or carried in a pocket or briefcase. The need for formal shorthand has declined dramatically.

On the other hand, for many years shorthand (Pitman, of course) was required for students studying for a journalism degree in England, to ensure their ability to take accurate notes. In fact, there have always been those who found alternate settings in which shorthand could be useful, and there are many fields where the ability to take notes quickly could be important.

There is a niche that technology can't easily fill, where people need to review notes quickly, before recordings could possibly be transcribed. There are times students can't be clacking away on their laptops yet still need to make notes. Journalists can use technology to record every word of an interview, but they still need to make notes of follow-up questions to ask and know exactly what was said 20 minutes ago in case it bears on some other issue. Neither audio nor video technology can meet every need.

Journalists, authors, police, copywriters, administrators, law students, medical students -- any students . . . or anyone who deals with large volumes of communication and can't use or can't always be near their technology of choice, could benefit from even a basic shorthand skill.

While a good symbol shorthand like Gregg could sometimes be written at speeds exceeding 200 words per minute, most Gregg writers never even reached 100 words per minute, for the simple reason that learning a whole new way to write English was complex and difficult. It took students years to acquire a skill over 100 wpm. It was common to take six months to a year simply to acquire a basic symbol or hybrid shorthand skill.

But one can acquire a basic PS (Personal Shorthand) skill in a single school term.

Through numerous different editions over the past half-century and more, symbol shorthands have required 50, 60, 80, or even a hundred theory lessons. In a school year of approximately 180 days you can see that even the least of these would require half a year just to introduce the complete shorthand theory, and much more to acquire even a modest skill. For any shorthand system, the greatest portion of the time to develop a useful skill is the time necessary to practice enough that writing the shorthand comes automatically.

PS, however, has just 10 theory lessons, which could be completed in just two or three weeks, so students can begin their practice much sooner than with other systems. The average person writes longhand at 25 to 30 words per minute. We have found that most PS students can approximately double their longhand writing speed in one 9 to 12 week school term.

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