The top 25 words

The short forms you’ve learned so far include many of the most common words in English. The 25 most common words make up about a third of all the words used in everyday English, so if you can learn them all, you should see a big boost in your writing speed.

But there’s a snag.

The rules are very simple.

You’ll remember I said that Pitman has a lot of rules. And the usual way to learn it – as, indeed, most books teach it – is systematically, one rule at a time. You learn about D, then you learn words containing D. But we’re doing things backwards. The short forms that follow use a wide range of different rules. What’s worse, the most common short forms break the rules, so it’s going to feel extremely arbitrary, like Captain Kirk explaining the rules of Fizbin.

So, bear with me. I’ll show you the shortcuts, and explain the rules behind them, or the rules that should be behind them but aren’t. And don’t worry if the rules don’t seem to make too much sense yet. We’re starting with the hard stuff. These characters mesh very nicely into the bigger system. Everything will make more sense later, and you’ll start to appreciate Pitman, both the deep logic of it, which applies to most of the system, and the quirky bits, which are overrepresented in the shortcuts.

But for now, all you really need to do is memorize these shapes, and use them as much as possible to write, and then read, material of your own. Remember, once you’ve learned the handful of characters on this page, you will know enough super-fast Pitman Era shortcuts to write a third of all English words.

At

This is the symbol for “at” – a T symbol, floating above the line.

Why is it floating? Well, it comes from an important rule in Pitman. The height of a word depends on the first vowel. If the first vowel sound is in the first position (A, AH, O, AW, IE, OY), the whole word is written in that position.

If the first vowel is in the second (middle) position, the word also goes in the middle, which usually means resting on the line. If the first vowel is in the third (low)  position, then the word is written in third position, pushing down through the line. Writing words this way means you can tell them apart even if you leave out the vowels. There are some exceptions, but mostly that’s how it works.

"Mostly"

Mostly.

But if you cast your mind back, you’ll remember that the word “it” is also a T. What’s the first vowel? It’s an I, which is written in the third position. That should mean the symbol is written extra low, running through the line. But it isn’t – it’s written in the middle position, resting in the line.

This is just one of those exceptions I mentioned. You’ll see later that regular Pitman words follow the rules strictly, but these short forms, and there only a few, often go in their own weird direction.

Some super smatterings of S sounds

The letter S is very common in English, so Pitman gives it special attention. In addition to the regular S and Z symbols you’ve seen already, Pitman adds a mini-symbol, the circle-S, which stand for either S or Z. It’s often used in the middle or at the ends of words, to make shorter, faster outlines. Used on its own, this symbol stands for four common words. Resting on the line, it stands for either “is” or “his”. If you’re a Cockney, they sound the same.

“Is this ‘is coat?”

And floating above the line, it stands for either “as” or “has”. Again, for Cockneys, not a problem.

“As ‘e ‘as ‘is coat, I don’ fink this is ‘is.”

The symbols are written counterclockwise. The direction doesn’t matter much in this case, but when you attach S’s to other words, it will, so you might as well do it the right way from the start.

In / Any

The word “in” is the sixth most common word in the English language, and of all the symbols on this page, it’s the one you’ll use the most. Here is the character for “in”. It’s an N. Can you spot the problem with it?

Yes, the N part is fine. But, again, it’s in the wrong place. The first vowel of “in” is I, which is written down low, so why is this symbol floating up there in the first position?

O, Mr Pitman – why do you taunt us so?

The explanation – I think – is that this Pitman character is a sort of fossil. You see, Pitman shorthand was redesigned quite a bit in its early years, during the mid-1800s. Back then, the letters A and I were reversed – I was at the top, and A was at the bottom, and the word “in” was sensibly written in the first (high) position. Later the positions of the vowels were changed, and most words were changed to match, but this one stayed in the old position – maybe because it was such a common word and everyone was used to it being there, or maybe because N on the bottom could also mean “no” or “know”. Anyway, it’s always been there, and it didn’t want to move, whatever the rules say.

The same outline is also the short form for “any”. You can tell whether it’s in or any from the context.

For and They

Here are a couple of shortcuts that are better behaved. F, written high up, means for “for”. And it has a first position vowel AW – F-AW-R.  Next to it is the symbol for “they” – a TH written on the line – in the middle position. TH-EY.

He

You’ve already seen one character for the letter H. Here’s another, written in the opposite direction. Having two versions of this letter makes things easier when words are being joined together. On its own, the reversed version is the short form for “he”. It’s written in the third (low) position, because that’s where the EE sound lives. Write the circle first, then the line.

Are

Just as Pitman has alternate symbols for S, and H, it also has other ways of writing R, which is one of the most common English sounds. In fact, Pitman has more ways to write R than any other sound. This symbol, written upward, is another R symbol. It’s often used when R begins a word. As a short form, it means “are”.

Was, Have

Here are a couple more hot-blooded rule-breakers. “Was” (left) and “have” (right). They are written in the second position, although they both have first-position vowels.

Unless you pronounce “was” as “wuz”, and “have” as “uv”. I wuz sure you would uv done that.

This

This, by which I mean “this”, is our first example of a Pitman character made up of two elements. Pitman outlines are read from left to right, top to bottom. This one is vertical, so it can only be read top to bottom. It has a thick TH followed by the circle-S, to make “this”. Like many of these short forms, it ignores the position rules and sits on the line. This is “this”…

That

…And now that is “that”. It uses a new principle. In Pitman, if a stroke is shortened to about half it’s length, it adds a T or D sound to the end. So a shortened TH symbol means TH-T. And it’s in the first position, because the vowel is an A. “TH-A-T”.

From

I’ve saved the best for last. This is the outline meaning “from”.

I’m actually tempted not to explain it, because this innocent looking symbol follows so many different new rules, and breaks one too, and I’m afraid that, once I explain it, you’ll decide Pitman is too hard and run off screaming and spend the rest of your life learning a nice easy language, like Navajo or Linear B. But here goes. The little curve, a hook, at the top of the symbol stands for R. But the R doesn’t happen at the beginning – it’s the second sound, after the curve that looks like an R, but is actually an upside-down F. So this is the upside-down version of the symbol for FR. Why is it upside down? Because FR begins the word. If the word started with a vowel (like “afraid”) it would be right side up. Oh, and “from” is written in the second position, even though the first vowel sound, O, is in the first position. Make sense? I thought not.

Sometimes you just have to put your reason on hold. For now, just draw this symbol from top to bottom, forget where it’s from and remember that it’s “from”.

Congratulations!

You now know 25 Pitman shortcuts, making up a major chunk of written English. Try copying more material from a book or magazine, this time using the short form whenever you know one.

These are tricky ones to remember, but if you can keep them in your head, it’ll be a big help when you learn other symbols that are based on the same rules.

Quiz

Feast your brain glands on these pearls of Pitmanic pulchritude. The first one uses only Pitman shortcuts. The second mixes short forms with our slower longhand Pitman.

1.

2.

Answers

1. Give it to him. I think all this is from you. That has your thing on it.

2. To kill the alien you ought to wait until he has his nap. That is when his robots come to give him his backrub and a bath. I think that is the time you should do it. But you must strike swiftly, for he has his laser and will expect this attack.