How to write 225 words per minute
June 25, 2014 1:07 PM   Subscribe

How to write 225 words per minute. With a pen. Dennis Hollier, in the Atlantic, writes about Gregg shorthand, a piece of analog data-compression technology now largely forgotten and probably forever unequalled.
posted by escabeche (54 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

Sounds like something I can get totally obsessive with for about a week, only to end up with "Hello world" on an otherwise blank piece of paper - at the cost of a neglected social life.

So.. a bit like the week I spend programming in whitespace.

...Let's do this!
posted by bigendian at 1:14 PM on June 25 [18 favorites]

My mother uses Pitman, an older system, and can take stenographic notes like a demon. I've never picked up the skill although it seems like even today it would be a useful thing to know, and not impossible for someone who still remembers Palm Graffiti all these years later.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:16 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]

My mother used to do this! I thought it was the oddest thing I had ever seen.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:19 PM on June 25

Gregg shorthand was still a thing when I was in high-school. I was one of the few boys to take a typing class and most of the girls in there were also taking shorthand as part of some non-college clerical prep track.
posted by octothorpe at 1:22 PM on June 25

Ha! I took this in high school. I was the only boy. I got fairly good at it, for a time, and I can remember most of the strokes, but I'm sure I'd be faster typing a conversation than taking shorthand.
posted by MoxieProxy at 1:26 PM on June 25

Is it really no longer in use anywhere, or only in the US? My grandad taught me touch typing in the summer between a couple of my years in high school, and wanted to teach me shorthand but I ran out of time. Regretted that decision when I got to college.
posted by Runes at 1:27 PM on June 25

I learned Pitman and managed to get up to 180wpm for very short bursts. I've largely forgotten it now though. One of the things we were told is that people studying journalism would usually be taught Gregg. I can't remember the reason why now.
posted by essexjan at 1:34 PM on June 25

Just make sure you're not a lefty
posted by defcom1 at 1:35 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

omg, essexjan -- I studied journalism years ago and literally immediately I realized knowing shorthand would make that job 1000x easier. I never learned it and I am not exaggerating when I say that if I had, there's a chance I would still be a journalist today*. I struggled so much trying to capture realtime conversations in a form I could use to salvage accurate quotes from.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:41 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

I could really, really use this. I do a lot of witness interviews that can't be audio- or video-recorded and there are so many times I wish I had a verbatim or near-verbatim quote.
posted by resurrexit at 1:41 PM on June 25

I take notes at work on a pad that says "Gregg Ruled" on the front of it and every time I see those words I have to remember all over again that Gregg shorthand is a thing. My own handwriting is appalling, but reading the article I already use some of the abbreviational techniques so I might give this a go one of these days.

defcom1, I'm a lefty; what do I need to know?
posted by gauche at 1:43 PM on June 25

I tried to learn Gregg once. I was really into for like a week and then completely gave up.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:46 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

There's still a national speed contest. The analysis of the championship entry from 1924 (at 280 wpm) is absolutely fascinating.
posted by scrump at 1:56 PM on June 25 [8 favorites]

Samsung's handwriting recognition still can't even handle the fact that I don't put serifs on my uppercase I, but I was just thinking, if the handwriting recognition could handle shorthand, it would suddenly become a really blazing fast way of doing text input.
posted by Sequence at 2:00 PM on June 25 [7 favorites]

I learned Gregg in the 70s. I used it for my observation notes in my doctoral field work and also for class notes and classroom observation notes when I was department chair. It's faster and quieter than my (extremely fast) typing, but it had the disadvantage that people freaked out when they saw it.
posted by Peach at 2:02 PM on June 25

a piece of analog data-compression technology now largely forgotten and probably forever unequalled

How many WPM can practiced Chinese writers get?

It's hard for me to imagine someone averaging 4 characters a second, but Chinese writing is highly compressed (too), relative to Latin, because it offloads complexity into the "alphabet."

It does seem like the average Gregg strokes per English word could be lower than the average strokes per character in practical Chinese.

Curious what someone more knowledgeable would say.
posted by grobstein at 2:10 PM on June 25

Chinese characters actually also undergo further streamlining [PDF] when people write in cursive.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:18 PM on June 25 [4 favorites]

My high school offered shorthand; I took typing instead because I was already an excellent typist so it was an easy grade, and it was kind of fun to show off (and I got to represent the school in a typing competition (which I won (and got my picture in the local paper (wearing a Primus t-shirt and looking like a total dirtball)))). But my point was, I really regretted not taking shorthand because I love writing in secret codes which is basically what that is, but arguably with other benefits too.

Anyway, cool post, and it completely refreshed the regret. Thanks, I guess.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:19 PM on June 25 [4 favorites]

Way back in my teenage years, I taught myself Teeline shorthand for kicks. Got to the point where I was about as fast at writing Teeline as I was at normal handwriting before I lost interest.

Like Greg, Teeline compresses the language, but by eliminating redundant vowels rather than writing phonetically, so it's a bit like biblical Hebrew - there's always the possibility of unintended ambiguity if you omit a crucial vowel marking!
posted by pharm at 2:21 PM on June 25

gauche: It's just like all (western European anyway) writing, biased to the right hand! All the squiggles and swoops are optimized to be pulled, that's all. (Lefty here too..)
posted by defcom1 at 2:32 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

posted by mcstayinskool at 2:39 PM on June 25 [10 favorites]

Yeah the loops and slants don't really "work" for lefties. I tried to learn it as a kid by writing right-to-left but soon gave up.
posted by gubo at 2:47 PM on June 25

There's still a national speed contest. The analysis of the championship entry from 1924 (at 280 wpm) is absolutely fascinating.

Yeah, that link alone would have made a great post.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:52 PM on June 25

The way that letters blend into each other, changing their shape if necessary to make it smoother, reminds me a lot of what little I understand of Arabic script. Can anyone who knows more about Arabic comment on this? Is it possible to achieve similar WPMs in a language in Arabic script?
posted by valrus at 2:54 PM on June 25

As a journalist myself, who primarily uses audio recording, and looking at the 1924 sample, I can't hep but feel that there is no way to reconstruct a truly verbatim quote from the shorthand unless you actually have an excellent memory.

For example:
vune prs|n one oð|fs
is the shorthand for "Have you any personal knowledge of any of the facts in this case?"

But it's clear that it could just as easily be re-expanded as "Have you any personal knowledge of the facts in this case?" which is different.
posted by 256 at 2:55 PM on June 25

But it's clear that it could just as easily be re-expanded as "Have you any personal knowledge of the facts in this case?" which is different.

I know nothing about Gregg shorthand, but I assume that "one" in your example is short for "of any."
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 3:09 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

I learned Gregg shorthand in high school. Never once used it after the fact, but I used to have it on my resume.
posted by xingcat at 3:16 PM on June 25

Huh. I guess I just don't get what you'd use this system as a journalist. When I interview people for an article, I just touch-type straight into a Word doc, and afterwards I have an editable transcript at my disposal, rather than a page of cuneiform.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:17 PM on June 25

I'm holding my mom's Gregg Shorthand Manual (Simplified, Functional Method, Louis A. Leslie and Charles E. Zoubek, copyright 1949) in my hands right now. She learned shorthand in high school and I remember being absolutely fascinated with it: it seemed like a faintly sinister secret code and let me imagine our family connected to a mysterious world very different from Garfield Heights, Ohio.

Every once in a while she'd revert to it when making a grocery list, and it was really surprising.
posted by How the runs scored at 3:18 PM on June 25

I spent a week trying to learn Pittman once, I think the fact that I'm left handed made it harder than it otherwise might be.

I suspect that shorthand could be quite handy for input in the various devices today. I also suspect it'll never really catch on due to the amount of work it takes to learn.

Sort of like Morse code. It could be a really useful and subtle way to input to your phone or tablet or whatever when you don't want to go to the trouble of using the keyboard or even looking at the screen. But the difficulty of learning Morse will keep it from ever being a common input method.
posted by sotonohito at 3:18 PM on June 25

When I interview people for an article, I just touch-type straight into a Word doc, and afterwards I have an editable transcript at my disposal, rather than a page of cuneiform.

Not all journalists are sitting at a computer when they do an interview. There are some places where computers aren't allowed, or where they would be out of place, or make the interviewee feel awkward.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 3:20 PM on June 25

Some journalists definitely still use it. My company in Sydney employs a lot of them, and at a meeting recently I looked over to see the young guy next to me taking notes. To my delight, his pad was filled with squiggles. Very cool.

(Wasn't shorthand a plot point in "The Westing Game"? I always think of that when I see a reference to shorthand.)
posted by web-goddess at 3:50 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

hah. this reminds me of the "wtf seekrit kodes" meme that blew up on Tumblr when screenshots of the secretarial staff taking shorthand dictation were being passed around from episodes of Mad Men.

They still taught Pittman in my rural backwater Midwestern high school in the 1980s but I was told at the time that shorthand was essentially obsolete and at any rate if I was to bother learning shorthand at all, Gregg would have been more valuable so I skipped it in favor of computer BASIC and typing, both of which served me well in later years.

However, I can tell you that as the victim of decades as a clerical dogsbody in various tech, scientific, medical and legal capacities working for bosses who tend to be highly stream-of-consciousness verbal types, I've cobbled together my own variant of shorthand which I use to this day for taking meeting minutes or hashing down the "oh hey while you're here can you get x, y, z and while you're at it I need these five specifications from the library stat." It's a mishmash of chatspeak, scientific notation, chemistry and medical abbreviations that is nowhere near as elegant or compressed / rapid as something like proper shorthand but I can at least notate key concepts and capture facts and details at the rate they're being expressed.

One of the key things about any shorthand method is not learning the actual symbols themselves, but how to use the concept of compression to distill your meaning depending on contexts, which you'll always recall the context of something you wrote better than the individual details. I use the common scientific notation of a greek delta symbol to mean "change" or "variance" depending on context, an integral symbol for "volume / amount" and the common medical symbol cedilla to mean "with" or "in addition to", so it's not so much that I'm coding as I have a distillation algorithm (sort of) for compression.

most higher math and chemistry involves parsing a lot of very complex shorthand that compresses a lot of extremely complicated abstract concepts. Not that I understand most of the functional bits behind much of it, but it's all just code tbh.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:09 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

I can't help but feel that there is no way to reconstruct a truly verbatim quote from the shorthand unless you actually have an excellent memory.

I agree; and even then it seems like it might depend enough on the individual taking the shorthand that I wonder if another Gregg writer would reconstruct the same text or if it would be subtly reworded into their own voice. That would make it important to decode the shorthand into longform as soon as possible afterwards, instead of filing away the notes for future reference. Then again, almost-verbatim is more than adequate for most note taking in the business world.

Fascinating process to learn about, though. Thanks for the article.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:14 PM on June 25

I was the only guy in my high school Pitman class (and my home ec class, but that's another story). This was...what, 1988 or 1989? We were constantly drilled that shorthand, like being able to set tabs on a manual typewriter, was a skill that would always - always - be in high demand, and don't you pay any of that 'word processing' voodoo any mind.

To get into the class, we had to pass a dexterity test - writing cursive lower-case y's and h's over and over again. If you couldn't do the requisite number of yhyhyhyhys in the allowed time, and if said letters weren't sufficiently pleasing to the eye, well then you weren't Pitman material, young man. Miss wasn't amused when I asked if she was seriously questioning the flexibility of a teenaged boy's wrist.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:22 PM on June 25 [14 favorites]

I tried to learn Gregg once. I was really into for like a week and then completely gave up.

Same here. I think I put in a full month or so before giving up. You have to be a real auto-didact and preternaturally self-motivated to gain real fluency with shorthand. The end result is awfully useful, though.
posted by zardoz at 4:34 PM on June 25

My typing teacher had an accent which meant that when she called out drills for the home row it sounded like

semi (that came across pretty normal)

It wasn't particularly hard to keep up.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:38 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

sotonohito: "But the difficulty of learning Morse will keep it from ever being a common input method."

Morse is simple. Spend a summer with earphones on. First repeating for hours "Dit Dah - Alpha", then starting to type. *Eventually* you'll learn. (U.S. Navy Training Center, San Diego, CA. 1966 - Radioman - 20+ WPM).

Oh, and I never used again until I got an Amateur License.
posted by jgaiser at 5:02 PM on June 25

I used to work at a place where one of the assistants still used shorthand to take dictation and I was fascinated by it. Secret code indeed.

Though it's not used for work, we do have a modern day version.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:05 PM on June 25

I recall shorthand coming up in the the novel Dracula. In the opening chapters, when Jonathan Harker is a guest at Dracula's castle and is starting to develop suspicions about his host, there's a confrontation in which Dracula seizes Harker's journal to find out how much he's figured out -- only to be stymied by the fact that he's written it in shorthand.

Of course, this interaction could have happened if Harker had been writing in any language or writing system Dracula didn't know, but shorthand was still a fairly recent invention at the time, so the scene is part of the novel's ongoing theme of the old, superstitious ways being vanquished by modernity and modern technology.
posted by baf at 5:10 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]

This is a thing I learned how to do in high school two decades ago. I even took notes with it a few times!

The one time it actually came in useful was when a friend of mine had a note written to him by a girl in Gregg shorthand. He didn't write or read shorthand; I did. So I translated it into English and it was...pretty dirty. I don't know why someone would write someone else a note in shorthand who didn't read it (maybe for teh lulz?), but there I was to interpret it.

I don't remember much of it, but if I recall correctly, "v s oo" (parenthesis-thing, upward comma-y thing, small upside-down 'u') is shorthand for "very sincerely yours," which I still sign correspondence with because I like the sentiment.
posted by ostranenie at 5:26 PM on June 25

If u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb w hi pa.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:42 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

Not all journalists are sitting at a computer when they do an interview.

I also doubt many journalists can touch-type 225 wpm, especially if they're using a normal keyboard - my understanding is that closed captioning and courtroom typing makes use of highly specialized keyboards that require separate training to use.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:58 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

Though there is an open source stenography project aiming to bring steno to the masses.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:46 PM on June 25 [4 favorites]

I can write at about this speed now, it's reading it later on that's the tricky bit. Good thing I've got a system. Want to hear about my system?
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:43 PM on June 25

You ever drink Bailey's from a boot?
posted by Evilspork at 11:47 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

Not a fan of car trunk-oriented watering holes, sorry.
posted by lon_star at 12:42 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]

When I first went on the internet in the mid-90s, everyone thought we'd all be writing with steno/chording keyboards as soon as the wearable computing wave really hits (which would be any day now). Keyboards with such Urban Dictionary-ready names like "The Twiddler".

Speaking of which, couldn't you just mount a ring-like sensor to your index finger and draw steno shapes in mid air?
posted by pseudocode at 2:47 AM on June 26

I wish I had spent a summer teaching myself Gregg in high school instead of an English mode of Tengwar, because Tengwar is slow as hell to write.

It is very useful for writing sarcastic notes in the margins of meeting minutes, though.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:16 AM on June 26

I came across the angelfishy site linked in the article about a year ago, and tried to teach myself. I know the alphabet mostly, but know only a handful of the brief forms, and I'm still super slow - slower than my normal writing speed - because I just don't have the self-discipline to do exercises to speed it up. Part of the problem is that even though I mostly take my notes in English, half the time it's for meetings happening in French, and going through one translation uses up enough of my brain's processing power without adding a somewhat unfamiliar alphabet.

It does come in handy in meetings, even so; I take notes about what's being said in regular English, and notes about personal observations that I may not want others to read in Gregg.
posted by solotoro at 3:34 AM on June 26

One of the occasional topics of conversation at work has to do with whether all of our office automation tools have actually resulted in any increase in overall productivity. Yes, Microsoft Office is very clever, but I'm an engineer and I've lost track of the amount of time I've spent building Powerpoint presentations, formatting documents in Word, and a million other things instead of doing actual engineering. There have been more than a few times I've wished that I could just dictate a memo to a shorthand proficient secretary and have it sent down to the typing pool, or just do a quick doodle and have it sent to graphics to make a slide for a presentation. I'm getting ready to go to training so I can use our new travel reservation system, which kills hours of my time whenever I need to go on a trip, because they've eliminated all the human travel agents. The fraction of time I spend doing what you might call support work, instead of actual engineering, seems to be heading towards unity.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:05 AM on June 26 [5 favorites]

I took typing in high school, and gave Gregg a miss, more's the pity, that shit would be SO useful!

I do type pretty quickly though.

My grandmother used to sit in front of the TV and transcribe in Gregg just to keep up with it, in case anyone wanted to hire a 60 year old granny to take dictation.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:51 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]

The staff writer at my publication uses some form of shorthand. It's pretty cool. But it does make it hard for anyone else to use those notes to fact-check anything.
posted by limeonaire at 5:37 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]

I took this in high school with four other girls and actually competed in shorthand competitions. There's a pin we all received for competing and winners received scholarships. I had completely forgotten about all of that until reading this.

I have never used it outside of school, though.
posted by schnee at 11:11 PM on June 30

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