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Forget High-Tech Gizmos—the Smartest Note-Taking Technology Is Two Centuries Old

A lesson in the lost technology of shorthand

As a journalist, I begin most interviews by holding up my pen and asking, “Have you ever seen one of these?” No one ever has.

It’s not an ordinary pen, of course. It’s a Sky wifi smartpen , a piece of gee-whiz technology from a company called Livescribe. Basically, the smartpen replaces all your standard reporter’s tools. To start with, it’s an old-fashioned pen for old-fashioned paper, so I can still scribble my notes the way I always have. The smartpen is also a high-quality digital recorder, creating an audio file of the interview as we go along. Finally, a tiny camera near the tip of the pen simultaneously takes pictures of my notes as I write.

All of that information is then pulled together by a microprocessor housed in the barrel of the pen. And because the smartpen is really a computer, it’s able to sync up the picture of my handwritten notes with the audio file. That means I can tap the tip of the pen anywhere in my notebook, and the pen will instantly replay the audio of whatever was being said when I took that note. And since it’s WiFi enabled, the whole interview—audio file, notes, and all—is automatically uploaded to my Evernote account. It’s a little like magic.

There’s one other feature I like to point out. It’s possible, I tell people, to get optical character recognition software to go with the pen. If you write like a normal person, the OCR will automatically convert your handwritten notes into a text file that you can then copy and paste into your word processor. For many reporters, this is the best feature, obviating the painful task of transcribing long interviews. But it doesn’t work for me, I explain, because even though I’m recording this interview with the latest model Sky wifi smartpen, I’m taking notes using a 19th Century technology called Gregg shorthand .

In many respects, Gregg is even more ingenious than the smartpen. And, although no electronics or gizmos were involved, it was a tremendously powerful and influential technology for nearly 100 years. Now, it’s become the key to my workflow in the Internet age.

Gregg is a way of compressing language. You are the machine that does the encoding and decoding. And your brain can do it in real time at very, very high speeds. To understand why, you have to know a little about how it works.

Gregg is basically a much simpler and more efficient writing system than longhand English. This starts with the letters themselves. The Roman alphabet, which we use to write English, is much more complicated than is strictly necessary to distinguish one letter from another. To print a lower-case “b”, for example, requires a long, downward stroke with a clockwise loop at the base. Then, you have to pick up your pen to move to the next letter, an extraneous step that takes up almost as much time as the writing itself. Cursive (when was the last time you heard that word?) may seem a little faster, but it actually requires additional strokes, short ligatures at the beginning and the end of each letter. That’s a lot of wasted motion, which is why cursive is actually only about 10 percent faster than print.

In contrast, Gregg’s “letters” are much simpler shapes. Here's the first paragraph of this article written in shorthand:

Dennis Hollier

Consonants are either shallow curves or straight lines; vowels are either loops or small hooks. The Gregg “b”, for example, is an uncomplicated downward stroke of the pen—a long, forward-leaning curve that faces to the right, like an open parenthesis in italics. If you measure the complexity of writing in the number of strokes, the Gregg “b” requires just one stroke compared to the four or five that comprise the Roman “b.” Gregg letters also require no ligatures; each letter blends seamlessly into the others. In the combination “b-r”, for instance, the long, downward curve of a “b” joins the short, horizontal curve of an “r” to form a sort of right-handed fishhook.

Here, you can see the Gregg letter "b," then "r," and a combination of the two, which would represent "bring" (more on that abbreviation in a minute):

Dennis Hollier

In Gregg, the simplification of the forms of letters reaches its apogee in a process called “blending”. The individual strokes of many frequently combined letter pairs are written with a single blended stroke. The short, straight, horizontal dash of an “n” and the long, diagonal, upward stroke of the “d” join to become a long, upward curve that represents “nd”. This not only reduces the number of strokes, it eliminates the momentary pause necessary to form an angle between the “n” and the “d”. This simplicity of design—the absence of superfluous strokes—accounts for about 10 percent of the speed of Gregg.

Here's "n," "d," then the "nd" combo:

Dennis Hollier

Another advantage of Gregg is that it’s phonetic. The word “bay”, for example, is written “b-a”—the simple downward curve of the “b”, finished with the large, counter-clockwise loop of an “a”, so that the whole word, three letters in longhand, looks pretty much like a single sloping version of the Roman “b”. Gregg eschews the parade of silent letters, like the “y” in “bay” that make English so difficult to learn as a second language.

Here a sequence showing "b," "a," then "ba" for "bay:"

Dennis Hollier

Some letters, like “c” and “q”, are completely absent from Gregg; there is no sound for “c” besides those already represented by “k” and “s”. On the other hand, there are common phonemes in English—“sh”, “th”, “ch”—that require a combination of letters in the Roman alphabet, but can each be written with a single letter in Gregg. “Though,” which, in longhand, requires six complex symbols strung together with seven short ligatures, is rendered with two short strokes in Gregg: “th-o.” But Gregg goes even further, eliding unstressed vowels and unvoiced consonants to get to the phonetic nugget of the word: “bed” is written as “b-d”; “act” as “a-k”; “done” as “d-n”.  This economy of spelling saves another 10 percent of the note-taker’s time.

But the biggest impact from Gregg shorthand comes from its systematic approach to abbreviation. For instance, almost every letter in Gregg, written by itself, represents a common word. Some are used for several different words, depending on the context. Our Gregg friend “b” can mean “be”, “by”, or “but”. The Gregg letter “r” can mean “are”, “our”, or “hour.” The Gregg letter “t” can mean “it” or “at.” In this way, nearly 100 of the most common words in English can be rendered in a single stroke. Similarly, most common English words have an abbreviated spelling of one or two strokes. The elegant Gregg version of  “b-r,” for example, is short for “bring” and is written in an instant. Here it is again:

Dennis Hollier

And, since 60 percent of spoken English is comprised of about 600 of these common words, brief forms play a huge role is speeding up Gregg. “Brief form” is actually a technical term in Gregg. Anyone can learn the Gregg alphabet in an afternoon and probably double their writing speed; but to become truly fast—like the remaining handful of Gregg-powered court reporters in the federal courts who take down testimony at more than 200 words per minute—you have to memorize dozens or hundreds of common abbreviations.

That sounds hard until you remember that your head is chock-a-block with common English abbreviations, most of which you learned organically as you needed them. Gregg is no different. And the Gregg versions are at least more systematic, so they accrue quickly.

But the brief form is more than a simple abbreviation, it’s the distillation of the basic premise of shorthand: Never write more than is necessary to understand it later. Using this principle, thousands of long, Latinate words are shortened to three or four letters in Gregg: “a-b-a-nd” for “abandon,” “h-u-nd” for hundred, “n-a-sh” for “nation.” Short forms were especially important in the polysyllabic lexicons of medicine and law—fields that, not coincidentally, were also epicenters of shorthand in Gregg’s heyday.

One especially fertile approach to abbreviation in Gregg is the use of single letters as stand-ins for common prefixes or suffixes, depending on whether they’re written before or after the words they modify. As prefixes, these letters can be either attached to or detached from the word. For example, a detached “g,” written just before and above a word represents “grand,” as in “grandmother,” but also as in “grandiloquent,” or even “granular” (which can be written “g” above “l-r.”)

On the other hand, an attached “k” at the beginning of a word can be the prefixes “con,” “com,” or “count;” so “k-g” is pronounced “cong,” and is the short form for Congress. But a detached “k” written above a word is the prefix “counter” or “contra”; so “k” written over a “b”, for example, is read “contrib” and is the short form for “contribute” or “contribution.”

It’s much the same with suffixes. A detached “g” at the end of a word stands for “gram,” as in “program.” A detached “k” stands for “ical,” as in “medical.” And a detached “o” takes the place of “ology,” as in “biology.”

These forms can also be added together to create longer words. “Biological” is written “b-i” followed by a detached “o-k.” In this way, long, complex words are reduced to two or three quick flicks of the pen, and yet remain completely legible to anyone who knows the Gregg system. Combined, the brief forms and the abbreviation principle account for about half of Gregg’s advantage over longhand. Not only are the letters uncomplicated and simply joined, there are fewer of them to write.

The final element that makes Gregg so blazingly fast is a technique called “phrasing.” Using this method, many common expressions can be dashed off in a few strokes without ever lifting the pen from the page. For example, the phrase “it will be” is composed of three common words, each of which can be written separately with a single letter: “i,” written with a short, straight, upward stroke that slopes to the right, represents “it;” “l,” a long, horizontal, upward-facing curve, represents “will;” and, as we’ve seen, “b,” the long, downward curving stroke, represents “be.” Phrasing allows you to join all three of these letters in one elegant, continuous form—“i-l-b”—that takes less than a quarter-second to write.

Here's "it will be" on the first line, with "I have been" below it:

Dennis Hollier

And there are literally thousands of these phrases in Gregg shorthand. Most importantly, unlike short forms, they don’t require much memorization; they’re the product of a few simple rules.

* * *

There you have it: a short course in the technology that made the Irishman John Robert Gregg an American tycoon in the first half of the 20th Century. By the time he died, in 1949, Gregg presided over an empire that reached from his headquarters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan into almost every school, business and courthouse in the country. While he was fundamentally a publishing magnate—Gregg Publishing put out hundreds of textbooks, dictionaries, study guides, magazines, and shorthand versions of classical literature—John Robert Gregg also oversaw a national infrastructure of certification agencies, business schools, and testing facilities that endorsed the skills of all professional shorthand writers. If you wanted to be an executive secretary, you needed a certificate from Gregg saying you qualified at 150 words per minute. If you wanted to be a court reporter, you had to demonstrate you could write an astonishing 225 words per minute with better than 98 percent accuracy. Altogether, millions of people passed through Gregg training and the Gregg certification system.

For nearly a century, Gregg was an essential part of American society. As recently as the 1970s, almost every high school in the country taught Gregg. Certainly, every business school and most colleges offered Gregg-certified shorthand courses. But Gregg’s decline began when McGraw-Hill bought Gregg Publishing, shortly after John Robert Gregg’s death. The rise of stenography machines in the 1940s and 1950s steadily drove shorthand from the courtroom (though there are still a handful of “pen writers” in the federal court system). The Dictaphone and other recording devices  made verbatim note taking less and less important in the office. And some people say improvements in women’s rights also played a role in the decline of Gregg. In a time when they were denied careers in fields like the law or medicine, the smartest, most talented women often ended up as secretaries or executive assistants and became gifted shorthand practitioners. In the 1960s and 1970s, as these women began to move on to better opportunities, those left behind never became quite as fast or skilled at the complexities of Gregg.

The real death knell for Gregg, though, was the arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s. Even high-level executives no longer dictated letters to their secretaries; they wrote them themselves on their desktop computers. Companies that used to have scores of skilled shorthand writers eliminated their steno pools entirely. Today, I'm not aware of any high school that teaches Gregg. It's almost impossible to find it taught in colleges—with two exceptions in Kingsborough and Queensborough community colleges in New York City, where Gregg writers are still prized by some white glove law firms. The only book still published by the Gregg Division of McGraw-Hill is The Gregg Manual, an office reference that contains no mention of shorthand.

But, as a technology for writing fast with pen and paper—still a fundamental skill for reporters like me—Gregg shorthand has never been surpassed. Nowadays, you may have to buy an old Gregg manual on e-Bay and teach yourself, but even if you just learn the basics, Gregg will probably double your note taking speed. With practice and daily use, it’s not uncommon to reach speeds of 100 words a minute or more. And, paradoxically, shorthand is the perfect complement to the 21stCentury technology of the smartpen.

After all, shorthand—at least my shorthand—isn’t foolproof. Even though, for short stretches, I can write 120 words per minute, the average American now speaks at more than 150 words a minute, so something is inevitably lost in the translation. With my trusty Sky smartpen, though, I don’t have to worry. Most of the time, when I get around to writing the story, I can rely on my handwritten notes for short quotes and background information. But when I need a longer, verbatim quote, I can use my notes as a kind of index to find the right part of the interview, and tap there with my pen to hear the playback. No more of the forward/reverse dance with a digital recorder when it’s time to transcribe. It’s an almost flawless system.

But whenever I get a little too smug about my clever use of this hybrid technology, I like to think about the great court reporting contests of the late 1920s when legends of shorthand, like Charles Swem and Martin Dupraw , competed head-to-head against one another. They took dictation in categories like “jury charge” and “testimony.”

By 1927, the last of the National Speed Contests just between pen writers, the testimony category was conducted at 280 words a minute. That’s more than four words a second, fast even with a smartpen.

Dupraw won, for the third year in a row, with a fountain pen.

( Image via EM Karuna / Shutterstock.com )