Sunday, July 24, 2022

Faster, faster! The History of Shorthand

By Terrie Todd

I suppose it gives away my age to reveal that I learned shorthand in high school. Got pretty good at it, too, since I was chosen to represent my class at a regional office procedures contest. I didn’t make the podium in shorthand, but I did win a first-place medal for typing at the same event. It’s just as well. While pen shorthand soon afterward became obsolete, typing has served me well in my roles as an Administrative Assistant and as an author.

Of course, if you’ve ever typed “LOL” or used an emoji, you know shorthand is not truly obsolete. Ever since man began to communicate in writing—from hieroglyphics to modern words, he’s been looking for shortcuts. It seems every language known to humans has some form of shorthand. One popular system in ancient Rome was invented by Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, in order to record his speeches. Certain professions, like the medical world, have their own forms.
Roman Emporer Cisero
Probably the most famous user of shorthand was Charles Dickens (1812-70) who worked as a court and parliamentary reporter prior to and during his writing career. If you’ve read his 1850 novel, David Copperfield, you’ll know the story is mostly autobiographical. In his published letters, Dickens recorded his frustrations and joy in mastering shorthand.
Charles Dickens knew shorthand.
The English language has (or had) three common stenography alphabets used by court journalists and secretarial services: Pitman, Gregg, and Teeline. While Teeline is based on proper spelling, Pitman and Gregg are both phonetic. For example, since the shorthand for the letter ‘b’ is a simple downward stroke with a left-bending curve, that same stroke is used to represent the word “be.” A downward stroke with a right-bending curve represents the word “for” as well as the “f” sound in forever, phone, and laugh. All silent letters are omitted. It’s a wonder that shorthand users can remember how to spell at all. Since Gregg is the system I learned, it’s the one I will focus on here.

Gregg shorthand is the form I learned in high school.

Gregg shorthand is named for its inventor, John Robert Gregg (1867-1948). Like many useful developments, this one has its roots in a tragic story. Born in Shantonagh, Ireland, Gregg moved to Rockcorry in 1872. On his second day of school, the schoolmaster caught John Robert whispering to a schoolmate. He banged the two children’s heads together, damaging John Robert’s hearing to the point where he was unable to understand his teacher or fully participate in school. As a result, John Robert was perceived by everyone as mentally challenged.

When John Robert was ten years old, a friend of his father’s visited their village for the weekend. The man was a journalist named Annesley. In church that Sunday, Annesley took verbatim notes of the sermon using Pitman shorthand. Fascinated at this skill, Mr. Gregg required his children to learn Pitman shorthand as well—except for John, who was considered too simple-minded to learn it.

Although none of his siblings succeeded with the system, John Robert learned a different shorthand system from a book. Since hearing wasn’t required, nothing slowed him down. Before the age of 13, John Robert was forced to leave school to help provide the family with income. He earned five shillings a week in a law office.

In 1888, Gregg published and copyrighted his own system of shorthand, releasing it in England in a brochure entitled Light-Line Phonography: The Phonetic Handwriting.

In 1893, he emigrated to the United States. That year he published Gregg Shorthand which saw increasing success. Gregg settled in Chicago and wrote many books on shorthand and business practices for the Gregg Publishing Company.

John Robert Gregg
Meanwhile, an American inventor named Ward Stone Ireland was using a typewriter one day when he began to consider the potential of a machine that might type a whole word with one stroke of the keyboard. After many years of experimentation, he patented such a machine in 1910. He then established the Universal Stenotype Company to both manufacture the machines and train teachers in their use. As a result, Ireland is considered the father of the modern shorthand machine.
An early stenography machine.
While pen shorthand has gone the way of the dodo bird (and cursive writing seems to be following!), machine stenography is still a highly marketable skill. Stenographers can offer services as medical transcriptionists, real-time TV captioners, as well as in numerous accessibility fields. Today’s machines allow stenographers to type 300 words per minute or more, twice as fast as the average person speaks. This is because they have only 22 keys which can be pressed simultaneously in varying combinations to form “chords” of syllables. For example, while it takes me eight strokes to type the word “calendar,” a stenographer can type it in three strokes by pressing the chords that make the syllables “cal”, then “en” and “dar.”

A modern stenography machine.

I wonder if I’m too old to learn this skill?

In the dead-end Canadian town of Bleak Landing, Irish immigrant Bridget O’Sullivan lives in a shanty and dreams of another life as the Great Depression rages. Routinely beaten by her father and bullied by schoolmate Victor Harrison, the fiery redhead vows to run away and never return. Desiring to become anyone other than Bridget O’Sullivan, she never dreams the day will come when she must prove that’s exactly who she is—or that the one person who can vouch for her is her old nemesis, Victor. Can he also prove he’s a changed man worthy of her forgiveness and love? 

Terrie Todd’s fictional character learns secretarial skills
to improve her position in her third novel, Bleak Landing. She’s also the author of The Silver Suitcase, Maggie’s War, Rose Among Thornes, and The Last Piece. A split-time novel, From the Ashes, will release in 2022. Terrie is represented by Mary DeMuth of Books & Such Literary Agency. She lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children. They are grandparents to five boys.


  1. Thanks for the post today. I never learned shorthand but did take typing and like you am grateful I did.

  2. Hi Terrie, I did take shorthand during my junior year in high school. It was easy to learn, we had a good teacher who was patient with us! I never used it after graduation as I went into childcare and then teaching later. Your post is a good one, much information!

  3. Great article that brings back memories of trying to master the art of shorthand. While in high school, I was on an academic track. I learned how to type but never learned short hand. When my first stab at college ended quickly and I needed to find work, I quickly realized I needed credible office skills.

    I attended Madison Business College in Madison Wisconsin for a year-long course that included Gregg Shorthand, and became fairly good at it, but never made the grade when applying for office jobs at the University of Wisconsin where I had to pass a shorthand and typing test. Instead, I was given the rating of Typist II or something like that.

    Over the years, I did use my shorthand in various office jobs. But eventually I became a transcriber, using a dictaphone and not having to take shorthand and then attempt to read it back. (That was where my skills lacked the most.) Reading the image of Gregg shorthand in the article, I can tell you my reading level has totally tanked. I still do sometimes use shorthand when taking sermon notes though. Something I never dreamed I would be doing when I first learned it. Just goes to show that God never wastes a learned skill.