How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen

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.

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Dennis Hollier is a writer based in Honolulu. 

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