Originally, the shorthand was written with old-fashioned pens which had nibs. This made it easy to write both light and heavy strokes. With a pencil, your light stroke should be a fine line on the paper, and a heavy stroke should be only a little heavier than a light stroke.
The best pencil to use is a mechanical pencil with a self-advancing lead (such as Dixon Sense Matic disposable plastic pencils). If you have to click to advance the lead, you will waste time. You need lined paper, preferably one of those “steno” notepads with a line running down the middle, dividing the page into two columns. The preferred Pitman line-spacing is lines 3/8″ thick. In Pitman, if you make a mistake, you don’t waste time erasing — you just circle the mistake and rewrite it, which is quicker.
The Basic Letters:
The following are the basic stroke shapes in Pitman for the consonant sounds. They consist of the simplest possible strokes, in different orientations and thicknesses. Note that th represents the sound of th in words like thank and think, and TH represents the sound of th in words like they and them.
Most of these strokes are written from left to right, or top to bottom if they are oriented vertically like T, D, th or TH. The exceptions are: CH/J, top to bottom moving slightly from right to left; SH/ZH, written from top right to bottom left but occasionally left to right; H, always starting with a small clockwise loop; S/Z, a small counter-clockwise loop usually attached to another stroke (and S-R or S-CH can’t be confused with H for that reason).
Vowels are indicated by dots or dashes (which can be light or heavy), or other marks, written next to a consonant stroke. If the vowel sound occurs before a consonant, it is written to the left of the consonant stroke, if it occurs after, it is written to the right. Exception: horizontal strokes like K/G, M, N or NG show a vowel mark above the consonant stroke if the vowel sound occurs before the stroke, and below the consonant stroke if the vowel sound occurs after. In Pitman, you write the consonant sounds first to form a shorthand “outline” and then, if necessary, mark in the vowels. In many instances, no vowel marks are necessary. Vowels should, however, be marked in full the first time a proper name is mentioned (or if the name has an unfamiliar spelling, it should be spelled out in regular letters).
Each vowel mark occupies one of three possible positions on a consonant stroke: first (or initial), second (or middle) and third (or final) position. Third-position marks for vowels occurring after a consonant stroke are written in front of the next stroke, if there is one, to avoid confusing first and third-position vowels. The same mark in different positions represents completely different vowel sounds. It is important to practice the placement of vowel sounds until it becomes second nature, and then train yourself to recognize when they can be safely omitted.
It was discovered early on that completely omitting the vowels could create ambiguous shorthand outlines, so a few rules were made for vowel indication without actually using any vowel marks. The principal rule is this: if the first consonant stroke of a word outline has a first-position vowel (whether before or after the consonant), write this stroke above the line. If the first consonant of a word includes a second-position vowel, write this stroke on the line. And, finally, if the first consonant of a word includes a third-position vowel, the stroke is written through the line, lower than a stroke on the line (exceptions: horizontal strokes like K/G, M, N or NG if they are alone, or halved strokes (see More). These go on the line itself.) With this rule, there is some indication of the first vowel of a word (from the total possibilities), and this works surprisingly well to distinguish very similar words.
Again, with a pencil, light marks should be the lightest possible dots and dashes, with heavy marks heavy enough to distinguish from light marks. The I and oi marks count as first-position vowel marks, the ow and you marks are third-position.
*The heavy dash is a sound which North Americans hardly distinguish from the light dash. In England, the heavy dash is a particularly deep “aw” sound, and they pronounce words like “dog” (light dash) differently from words like “law” (heavy dash). However, Pitman is entirely phonetic, and if the speaker doesn’t distinguish these sounds the lightness or heaviness of the dash can quite simply be ignored.
The shorthand system doesn’t stop with speeded-up symbols for consonants and vowels. It adds “short forms” (either simple strokes for words or strokes based on existing consonant sounds) as well as special modifications of consonant strokes. Short forms for the most common words are:
Most short forms are based on existing consonant strokes. A stroke could mean a different short form based on whether it is written above, on, or through/below a line. Looking back at the consonant table again, here are what the strokes mean if taken as short forms (above, on or through/below a line respectively). A dash means the stroke is not used as a short form in that position:
Most punctuation marks are the same or close to regular printing. However, owing to the dots and dashes of Pitman symbols, changes have been made to eliminate confusion with Pitman strokes:
Short Writing Sample:
Here is a sentence written in Pitman. Below it is a guide to the consonants and vowels represented, and below that is the full meaning (taking into account any short forms and other tricks, some of which weren’t mentioned yet).