Pitman shorthand

Pitman shorthand
heavy-line geometric abugida Stenography
Languages English
Creator Isaac Pitman
Time period
Child systems
Pitman's New Era
Pitman's 2000
Western Cree syllabics (finals)

Pitman shorthand is a system of shorthand for the English language developed by Englishman Sir Isaac Pitman (1813–1897), who first presented it in 1837.[1] Like most systems of shorthand, it is a phonetic system; the symbols do not represent letters, but rather sounds, and words are, for the most part, written as they are spoken.[2] As of 1996, Pitman shorthand was the most popular shorthand system used in the United Kingdom and the second most popular in the United States.[3]

One characteristic feature of Pitman shorthand is that unvoiced and voiced pairs of sounds (such as /p/ and /b/ or /t/ and /d/) are represented by strokes which differ only in thickness; the thin stroke representing "light" sounds such as /p/ and /t/; the thick stroke representing "heavy" sounds such as /b/ and /d/. Doing this requires a writing instrument responsive to the user's drawing pressure: specialist fountain pens (with fine, flexible nibs) were originally used, but pencils are now more commonly used.

Pitman shorthand uses straight strokes and quarter-circle strokes, in various orientations, to represent consonant sounds. The predominant way of indicating vowels is to use light or heavy dots, dashes, or other special marks drawn close to the consonant. Vowels are drawn before the stroke (or over a horizontal stroke) if the vowel is pronounced ahead of the consonant, and after the stroke (or under a horizontal stroke) if pronounced after the consonant. Each vowel, whether indicated by a dot for a short vowel or by a dash for a longer, more drawn-out vowel, has its own position relative to its adjacent stroke (beginning, middle, or end) to indicate different vowel sounds in an unambiguous system. However, to increase writing speed, rules of "vowel indication" exist whereby the consonant stroke is raised, kept on the line, or lowered to match whether the first vowel of the word is written at the beginning, middle, or end of a consonant stroke—without actually writing the vowel. This is often enough to distinguish words with similar consonant patterns. Another method of vowel indication is to choose from among a selection of different strokes for the same consonant. For example, the sound "R" has two kinds of strokes: round, or straight-line, depending on whether there is a vowel sound before or after the R.

There have been several versions of Pitman's shorthand since 1837. The original Pitman's shorthand had an "alphabet" of consonants, which was later modified. Additional modifications and rules were added to successive versions. Pitman New Era (1922–1975) had the most developed set of rules and abbreviation lists. Pitman 2000 (1975–present) introduced some simplifications and drastically reduced the list of abbreviations to reduce the memory load, officially reduced to a list of 144 short forms. The later versions dropped certain symbols and introduced other simplifications to earlier versions. For example, strokes "rer" (heavy curved downstroke) and "kway" (hooked horizontal straight stroke) are present in Pitman's New Era, but not in Pitman's 2000.


A selection of a journal by George Halliday 1845-1854. The Mormon pioneer wrote in Pitman shorthand. Transcription in image description.

Pitman was asked to create a shorthand system of his own in 1837. He had used Samuel Taylor's system for seven years, but his symbols bear greater similarity to the older Byrom system. The first phonetician to invent a system of shorthand, Pitman used similar-looking symbols for phonetically related sounds. He was the first to use thickness of a stroke to indicate voicing (voiced consonants such as /b/ and /d/ are written with heavier lines than unvoiced ones such as /p/ and /t/), and consonants with similar place of articulation were oriented in similar directions, with straight lines for plosives and arcs for fricatives. For example, the dental and alveolar consonants are upright: | = /t/, | = /d/, ) = /s/, ) = /z/, ( = /θ/ (as in thigh), ( = /ð/ (as in thy).

Pitman's brother Benjamin Pitman settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States and introduced Pitman's system there. He used it in the 1865–67 trial of the conspirators behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In Australia the system was introduced by another Pitman brother, Jacob. Jacob Pitman is buried in Sydney's Rookwood Necropolis, in Australia. The epitaph is written phonetically.[4]


At one time, Pitman was the most commonly used shorthand system in the entire English-speaking world.[5] Part of its popularity was due to the fact that it was the first subject taught by correspondence course. Today in many regions (especially the U.S.), it has been superseded by Gregg shorthand, developed by John Robert Gregg. Teeline has become more common in recent years, as it is based on spelling, rather than pronunciation.


Like Gregg shorthand, Pitman shorthand is phonetic; with the exception of abbreviated shapes called logograms, words are written exactly as they are pronounced. There are twenty-four consonants that can be represented in Pitman's shorthand, twelve vowels and four diphthongs. The consonants are indicated by strokes, the vowels by interposed dots.

Logograms (Short Forms)

Common words are represented by special outlines called logograms (or "Short Forms" in Pitman's New Era). Words and phrases which have such forms are called grammalogues. Hundreds exist and only a tiny number are shown above. The shapes are written separately to show that they represent distinct words, but in common phrases ("you are", "thank you", etc.) two or three logograms may be joined together, or a final flick added to represent the.


The consonants in Pitman's shorthand are pronounced bee, pee, dee, tee, jay, chay, gay, kay, vee, eff, thee, ith, zee, ess, zhee, ish, em, el, en, ray ar, ing, way, yay, and hay. When both an unvoiced consonant and its corresponding voiced consonant are present in this system, the distinction is made by drawing the stroke for the voiced consonant thicker than the one for the unvoiced consonant. (Thus s is ) and z is ).) There are two strokes for r: ar and ray. The former assumes the form of the top right-hand quarter of a circle (drawn top down), whereas the latter is like chay /, only less steep (drawn bottom to top). There are rules governing when to use each of these forms.


The long vowels in Pitman's shorthand are: /ɑː/, /eɪ/, /iː/, /ɔː/, /oʊ/, and /uː/. The short vowels are /æ/, /ɛ/, /ɪ/, /ɒ/, /ʌ/, and /ʊ/. The long vowels may be remembered by the sentence, "Pa, may we all go too?" /pɑː | meɪ wiː ɔːl ɡoʊ tuː/, and the short vowels may be remembered by the sentence, "That pen is not much good" /ðæt pɛn ɪz nɒt mʌt͡ʃ ɡʊd/.

A vowel is represented by a dot or a dash, which can be written either lightly or heavily depending on the vowel needed. As this only gives four symbols, they can be written in three different positions – either at the beginning, middle or end of a consonant stroke – to represent the 12 vowels.

The dots and dashes representing long vowels are darker than the ones representing short vowels. For example, say is written as ")•", but seh (if it did exist) would be written as ")·"; see is written as ").", but sih (if there were such a word) would be written as ").".

Another feature of Pitman's shorthand allows most vowels to be omitted in order to speed up the process of writing. As mentioned above, each vowel is written next to the consonant stroke at the beginning, middle or end of the stroke. Pitman's shorthand is designed to be written on lined paper and when a word's first vowel is a "first position" vowel (i.e. it is written at the beginning of the stroke), the whole shorthand outline for the word is written above the paper's ruled line. When it is a second position vowel, the outline is written on the line. And when it is a third position vowel it is written through the line. In this way, the position of the outline indicates that the first vowel can only be one of four possibilities. In most cases, this means that the first and often all the other vowels can be omitted entirely.


There are four diphthongs in Pitman's shorthand, representing //, /ɔɪ/, //, /juː/, as in the words "I enjoy Gow's music." The first three appear as small checkmarks; the "ew" sound is written as a small arch. Both "ie" and "oi" are written in first position, while "ow" and "ew" are written in third position. And in the same way, the whole outline is placed above, on or through the paper's ruled line. If the diphthong is followed by a neutral vowel, a little flick is added.

Other shapes

The circles are of two sizes – small and large. Small circle represents 's' (sing) and 'z' (gaze). Big circle represents 'ses' and 'swa'. If the big circle comes initially in the stroke it represents 'swa' (sweep, but not sway). Elsewhere it represents 'ses' (the vowel in the middle can be any of the vowel or diphthong (crisis, crises and exercise). If the vowel is anything other than 'e' then it must be represented inside the circle.
The loops are of two sizes – small and big. The small loop represents 'st' and 'sd' (cost and based) – pronounced stee loop. The big loop represents 'ster' (master and masterpiece). 'ster' loop does not come in the beginning of a word (sterling).
Small hooks
At the start. For straight strokes pee, bee, tee, dee, chay, jay, kay and gay the hook comes in both the sides of the stroke. Hook in clockwise direction represents 'r' after the stroke (tray, Nichrome, bigger). Hook in counter-clockwise direction represents 'l' after the stroke (ply, amplify, angle). For curved strokes eff, vee, ith, thee, ish, zhee, em, en, ing the hook is written in before the stroke is written and it represents 'r' after the stroke (other, measure, manner, every).
At the end. For straight strokes pee, bee, tee, dee, chay, jay, kay and gay the hook comes in both the sides of the stroke. Hook in clockwise direction represents 'en' after the stroke (train, chin, genuine). Hook in counter-clockwise direction represents 'eff' or 'vee' after the stroke (pave, calf, toughen). For curved strokes eff, vee, ith, thee, ish, zhee, em, en, ing the hook is written in after the stroke is written and it represents 'n' after the stroke (men, thin).
Shun hook

The shun hook is written on the right hand side of a simple t, d or j.

The big hook after any stroke represents 'shun', 'zhun' etc. (fusion, vision).
  1. For straight strokes with initial circle or loop or hook, the shun hook is written in opposite direction (section). Depression and depletion have shun hooks in different directions.
  2. For simple straight strokes, the shun hook is written in the direction opposite to the occurrence of the vowel. Caution and auction have shun hooks in different directions.
  3. For curved strokes, the shun hook is written after the stroke, continuing the curve (motion, notion).

To represent the sound s-shun as in sessation, decision, musician etc. you write a small circle and continue round to form a small hook.

Other hooks
Big hook for 'wh'. The big hook in the beginning of the stroke way represents 'wh' (whine).
Hook before ell. The small hook before ell represents 'way' before it (well). The big hook before ell represents 'wh' before it (while).---

Halving and doubling

Many strokes (both straight and curved) may be halved in length to denote a final "t" or "d". The halving principle may be combined with an initial or final hook (or both) to make words such as "trained" appear as a single short vertical light stroke with an initial and final hook. There are some exceptions to avoid ambiguous forms: a straight-r stroke can't be halved if it's the only syllable, because that might be confused for some other short-form (logogram) consisting of a short-stroke mark in that direction ("and" or "should").

Doubling of curved strokes
If ter, der, ture, ther, dher comes in the word the preceding stroke is written double the size (matter, nature, mother). There are exceptions to avoid ambiguous forms: for example, "leader" is not written as a doubled-l but as l plus a hooked-d representing "dr". (But e.g. "later" is a doubled-l.)
Doubling of straight strokes
the doubling principle has an exception when "ter" et al., is preceded by only a straight stroke. Doubling is not employed in that case (cadre). If it has more than one stroke before "ter" et al., or has a hook at the end (tender), or a joined diphthong (pewter), then the doubling principle is employed.

Cultural references

The protagonist of David R. Palmer's novels Emergence and Tracking purportedly writes her journals in Pitman Shorthand, declaring it the "best, potentially fastest, most versatile of various pen systems".

The Vogons in the 2005 movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy use a blockier form of Pitman 2000.[6]

Linguist Henry Sweet dubbed Pitman's Shorthand "Pitfall Shorthand" in his 1892 Manual of Current Shorthand.[7]

In the Preface to his play Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw cites Henry Sweet's "Pitfall Shorthand" comment.[8]


  1. "Preface". Pitman's Shorthand Instructor: A Complete Exposition of Sir Isaac Pitman's System of Shorthand (Second Australian ed.). Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd. This second Australian edition of the Instructor commemorates the centenary of the system of shorthand invented by Sir Isaac Pitman, who, in 1837, published his first treatise on the art.
  2. One major exception to this is the fact that rs are always transcribed, even when recording non-rhotic accents. One possible reason for this could be that in the early 19th century, British English had not yet started to drop its non-intervocalic rs.
  3. Daniels, Peter T. "Shorthand", in Daniels, Peter T. and Bright, William, The World's Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996, p. 811. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  4. The New Church Newsletter – Hurstville Society August 2002
  5. Pitman Shorthand. Toronto: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons (Canada), Ltd. 1937.
  6. Sweet, Henry (1892). A Manual of Current Shorthand, Orthographic and Phonetic. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  7. Shaw, George Bernard (1912). Pygmalion.


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