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What Is Pitman Shorthand?

By A.M. Boyle
Updated May 23, 2024
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Pitman shorthand is a system of abbreviated writing often used in transcription. It allows the user to condense words and phrases so that he or she can take down verbal dictation much more quickly than if he or she wrote it down using longhand. A popular form of shorthand, the pitman style uses a series of curves, lines, and strokes to represent words. With this particular shorthand method, letters themselves are not represented. Rather, the symbols used represent various sounds associated with words.

As one might imagine, pitman shorthand was named for the person who first came up with it. An individual by the name of Sir Isaac Pitman developed the symbols and techniques used for this type of shorthand sometime in the mid-1800s. It is considered to be a phonics-based method because it revolves around the way words sound rather than the way they are spelled.

When using this shorthand system, the transcriber utilizes a specific series of curved and straight lines to represent the particular sounds of a word. Both curved and straight lines vary in length and thickness. The length of the line denotes sounds, while the thickness of a line dictates the particular intonation a word carries. Thick lines indicate hard sounds, while thin lines signify soft tones.

Series of dots or dashes represent vowel sounds, but for the most part, they are optional. In general, transcribers sound out most words using only the consonants without the vowels. Consequently, for the sake of speed and brevity, vowel symbols are often omitted when a person uses pitman shorthand.

Due to the fact that the thickness of a particular symbol could change the sound attributed to it, pitman shorthand was traditionally written using a quill pen, otherwise known as an ink-dipped pen, so that the transcriber could easily vary the density of the marks. Over time, though, pencils became convenient and efficient substitutes for quill pens. As a result, most people who practice pitman shorthand use pencils for their transcription.

After it was developed, pitman shorthand became one of the most popular shorthand methods in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It was considered not only be an excellent, straightforward shorthand method, but with its simple yet elegant curves and lines, it was also recognized as an artful style of handwriting. With the introduction of recording devices used for dictation, the art of shorthand, including pitman style, slowly declined. As greater dictation technology developed, including computers and keyboards, shorthand transcription has become less and less popular. Pitman shorthand is still in use, but like most shorthand methods, it has become a dying art.

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