Pitman “Longhand”

Pitman shorthand was designed using circles and lines to represent the consonant sounds, with dots, dashes and a few other squiggles to stand for the vowel sounds. Notice I said the shapes stand for sounds, not letters. Pitman is written phonetically. The word-shapes record the sounds of the words. The spellings are irrelevant.

So, for example, a diagonal line written from top left to bottom right stands for the sound of “P”. A heavy dash near the end of a line stands for the sound of “oo” (as in rUde, or crUde, or Woo-hooo!).

OopSo, if you combine them, with the “oo” stuck to the left of the “P”, you get this…

“Oop” – which is, of course, the singular of “oops”.

PooIf the “oo” symbol is on the other side of the “P”, we are thrilled or disgusted to see this:


If you want to extend your knowledge beyond “poo” to the full gamut of English vulgarities, you’ll need to learn the whole system. What’s the best way? Well, if you hunt around, you’ll discover that there are various Pitman shorthand books available. You can find these books quite cheaply in second-hand bookstores or on eBay. There are even a handful of titles still in print, which you can buy new on Amazon.

Almost all these books teach the Pitman language in a series of exercises. First you learn a group of consonants, and a few vowels, so you can write words like “ape” and “pay”. Then you learn some shortcuts, like “shall” “the” and “you”. Then you read and write sentences like “You shall pay the ape”.

The problem with this system is that, unless you send a lot of messages about paying apes, it takes months before you know enough shorthand to do anything useful. You have to learn pretty much ALL the exercises before you have enough information to write any word correctly.

If you have the time, and you’re committed to learning Pitman, doing it by the book is your best strategy. But if you’re not quite sure, or if you’d like to dip your toe in the water first, or if you’re just impatient, then I offer a new approach here. I’ll explain the basics of the Pitman system, and introduce enough of the symbols that you can write pretty much anything you want. It’s an extremely simplified version of Pitman – not as fast, not as elegant, and with disconnected letters – a bit like writing English in block capitals. Once the basic Pitman “alphabet” becomes second-nature, it’s much easier to add in the official symbols for words. Each time you add a new abbreviation, your speed will increase.

You might wonder, why does Pitman take so long to learn? It’s because Pitman isn’t just an alphabet. Almost every word gets its own unique symbol, similar to the symbols used in Chinese, only simpler, faster to write, and easier to learn. It’s a system of writing that uses layers of ingenious methods to compress words, and write them faster than is possible in regular English.

(1) All spelling is phonetic, and every common sound is represented by a single character. In regular English, a word like “shopping” uses eight letters to represent only five sounds – SH-O-PP-I-NG. The word “through” is even worse – it uses six letters to represent three sounds – TH-R-OO. But in Pitman, words are written the way they are spoken. Silent letters and double letters are ignored, and sounds that must be written with two letters in English, like “sh” or “th”, have single characters to represent them.

(2) Characters are designed to be written very quickly. In regular English, for example, an uppercase M requires four strokes. In Pitman shorthand, the same sound is done with a single curved stroke. That’s a 75% saving. And it’s the same with most Pitman sounds – almost all are written with a single stroke or dot, whereas, in English, most letters consist of several strokes. The extra strokes don’t make a huge difference for one a single character, but over thousands of words, the saving in time is enormous.

(3) Common combinations of sounds get their own simple characters. Pitman has symbols for common English combinations, such as “Pr” “Str” and “ing”. It also uses other sneaky tricks to pack more information in, like shortening strokes to show the presence of a final T or D, or making them longer to show a final “TR” sound.

(4) Vowels can be dropped, and the word is still highly legible. This allows for very fast writing. In Pitman, the vertical position of each word suggests what the first vowel is, and that’s usually enough to identify the word.

(5) The most common words have their own unique abbreviations. In English, the 100 most common words make up roughly half of all printed material (in fact, the top 25 make up a third of it), so being able to write these words quickly makes a big difference to writing speed.

dreadingYou’ll be AMAZED at how far Pitman can compress a word, but learning all the techniques is slow, and takes a lot of mental effort. Look at this symbol on the right. A squiggle and two dots. It says “dreading”. Not “dr/g” or some dumb abbreviation, but “dreading”, clear as day. In fact, the dot on the right is optional. You can reduce the outline to just one squiggle and one dot, and it still says “dreading”.

It hardly seems possible that a mark like this could encode so much information, but it does. Pitman does a fantastic job of compressing word-sounds. It’s the MP3 of speech.

Here’s how the “dreading” example works. The curved stick is a DR symbol. This one has been written at half the normal length, which shows that the sound ends in a final D. The dot on the right (as well as the vertical position of the word, resting on the line) shows the E in the middle. DR-E-D. The dot at the bottom is one of the shortcuts for -ing. So – “dreading”. This is an example of how Pitman uses a complicated range of techniques to compress a word.

The problem is that, as the words get shorter, the rules get more complicated, and it takes time to learn them all. But there’s no reason you have to learn everything at once. In fact, if you start with steps 1 and 2 – using basic sounds to write words phonetically – you’ll have a complete working system that you can learn rapidly.

Using this “reduced instruction set”, the word “dreading” combines the symbols D-R-E-D-I-NG. Here it is written out:

The thick downstrokes are D’s, the first curve is an R, the second curve is an NG, and the two dots represent E and I. Not too difficult. I’d guess you could write at around 50 words a minute this way. You might call it “Pitman Longhand”. It’s way slower than real Pitman, but faster than regular handwriting, and mysterious enough to impress people who are watching you write. Once you’re comfortable with this quick’n’dirty system, you can start to learn the official shortcuts, and the methods behind them. Each layer of compression will make your writing faster.

In fact, this method of learning is pretty much the way the Pitman shorthand system developed in the first place. Many of the techniques evolved over time, as shorthand enthusiasts pushed the system to its limits, then found new ways to make it even faster.

The first step is to learn how to write some of the consonants.