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Andrew Owen


Figures seem simple to write, but if they've proved a "hazard" to your speed, too, you'll welcome this practice plan.

By Charles Lee Swem
Former Official Shorthand Reporter, New York Supreme Court

     One of the most perplexing problems of fast shorthand writing is not a shorthand problem at all. It has to do with those truly remarkable but troublesome inventions of the Arabs called digits—0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  The writing of them is not a shorthand problem because we do not usually translate them into shorthand. They are of themselves as brief as any shorthand character that can be devised for them and, besides, they are highly distinctive and therefore meet two of the three vitally important shorthand requirements. The third requirement which they do not meet is the element of phrasing, and it is because of that lack that they are the troublemakers that they are.
     To overcome this lack to some extent, we do translate them into shorthand in all instances where by so doing we can secure a brief, distinctive phrase. Thus, instead of employing the digits, we use the brief and distinctive shorthand outlines for one or two, two or three, three or four, four or five, nine or ten, and the fractional phrases of one-half, two-thirds, and three-quarters, as well as the more commonly used combinations of figures that lend themselves to that most important of all speed expedients—phrasing.

     Any sequence of short outlines that must be written separately, without the saving relief of phrasing, becomes both a mental and a manual hazard requiring the highest possible skill to overcome. The shorter the individual outlines, the greater the hazard. This hazard is tremendously enhanced when figures are involved, since figures have no context and slide off the mind into forgetfulness if they are not caught and fixed instantly. Most expert writers can permit themselves to get from fifteen to twenty words behind a speaker and yet not lose a single word, but it is only by the rarest concentration that a writer can suffer himself to lag even three or four digits behind a speaker, without transposing or entirely forgetting some of them.
     I do not think there is anything more difficult to report than the cross examination of a real estate expert in what is generally termed a tax appeal case, where the witness and the cross-examiner may delve into building values, rent rolls, reproduction costs, operating expenses, and the complicated details of the mathematical formulae that are used to determine units of value—all, indeed, the most routine stuff, and because it is routine it should be simple and easy. But because it deals largely with figures it becomes less a matter of shorthand than of sheer concentration and the ability to write the 1, 2, 3, 4's that we learned before we ever dreamed of writing shorthand.

     The skill necessary to do this type of reporting and to do it well does not come front ordinary shorthand practice. The figure content of most material on which the reporter usually writes, consisting of dates, casual amounts, and costs of commodities, does not fit him to write for pages at a time fast testimony in which figures predominate. Most reporters, I fear, have never made any special effort to become the expert in writing figures that they have in writing shorthand. Most of us have depended solely upon experience for this type of skill, feeling that figures, after all, are figures; that we have been writing them much longer than we have been writing shorthand, and therefore know them better than we do our shorthand. It is a common complaint among writers that figures are hard to get when they are spoken fast, because once the writer gets behind the speaker it is impossible to catch up again—there is no context to help keep figures impressed on the mind.
     This is quite true. One cannot get more than a very few digits behind and be certain that he makes an accurate report The way one can report figures accurately is always to keep up with the speaker and never get behind more than two or three digits. That, I suspect, sounds like an over-simplification of the problem, and yet I believe it is a very simple solution, possible to any writer. For, be it realized, I am not now speaking of shorthand speed; I am speaking only of writing the Arabic numerals that we have all been writing since our kindergarten days.
     The writing of figures, after all, calls for but two simple fundamental skills— the manual ability to form the digits fast enough, and the other, concentration— both of them abilities found to a high degree in many people who are not shorthand writers and who may not possess the other qualities requisite to shorthand skill The point I make is that if this skill is not to be found in the average competent reporter it is because he has never bethought himself of the necessity of practicing on ordinary, everyday figures.

     I believe I can best illustrate what can be done in the writing of figures by reciting a personal experience. Once upon a time, I could write 280 words a minute. Indeed, not to be too modest about it, I quite early found no great difficulty in Writing at that speed, so long as the speaker confined himself to words. But when at high speed he wandered off the beaten track and got into figures, I would invariably experience that most annoying shorthand malady of not being able to keep up. Surely, I thought, I should be able to write figures as well as shorthand, for weren't figures just as brief as shorthand, and I had certainly written enough of them to be able to write them as fast and fluently as any shorthand character I knew?
     The fact turned out to be that I had not actually written them as much as I had written shorthand, and that was why I could not write them as rapidly as I could write shorthand. On an inspiration, I got out the stop watch and, writing nothing but figures, repeating from 1 to 0 over and over again for a full minute, I discovered that, although I could write 280 words a minute in shorthand, the best I could do on figures was 220 words a minute. Recovering from my surprise, I recast my shorthand practice program and began from that moment to spend a large part of my daily practice effort on figure penmanship. The time came when I boosted that 220 to 240 words a minute, and there I remained for quite a long period.
     Partly because it was one of those natural speed “ruts” that all writers get into, I remained at that speed, but partly, also, I discovered, it was because there was a mental hazard in the writing of figures which has its counterpart sometimes in the writing of shorthand. This hazard had to do with the figure 5. I found I had great trouble at high speed in getting past the figure 5 in any sequence in which it occurred: All the other digits, with the exception of the figure 4, were written with one continuous stroke of the pen, but that totally irrelevant tick that was needed to complete the 5 was a source of confusion that disrupted all my efforts to increase my manual speed.
     Writing as I was at the highest speed of which I was capable, completely automatically, that extra tick for the 5, so totally out of character with the rest of the digits, very often sufficed in my subconscious mind for the figure following it, with the result that I would omit the 6. This was had enough from the standpoint of accuracy, but the fact that the 6 was omitted would register somewhere in my mental machinery. Immediately an attempt would be made to correct the error by inserting the 6 somewhere else, the whole process throwing me into a mental tailspin and hopeless confusion.

     This mental hazard I eventually eliminated by adopting a character for 5 which omits the tick, and writing the figure more like a shallow capital S. This character I found to be both facile and distinctive. The immediate result was to increase my writing speed of the digits about five words a minute; but, more important still, there was no more mental or coördinating hazard left, and with further practice I eventually succeeded in raising my writing speed on digits to 280 words a minute.
     I must confess that I did not reach this speed immediately but, by continuing to practice figures for the next several months, I overcame both the manual and the psychological hazard involved.
     The writing of figures must be learned as shorthand is learned, by systematic repetitive practice. Because they are not a shorthand problem, figures are too often forgotten by the average writer. Writing them, over and over again as shorthand is practiced, should be part of the practice program of every writer who hopes to become a competent, all-round reporter.

From The Gregg Writer, December, 1944; pp. 202-204

About Gregg Shorthand
Editor's Note
A Talk with the Beginner
The Alphabet
Chapter I
   Unit 1
   Unit 2
   Unit 3
Chapter II
   Unit 4
   Unit 5
   Unit 6
Chapter III
   Unit 7
   Unit 8
   Unit 9
Chapter IV
   Unit 10
   Unit 11
   Unit 12
Chapter V
   Unit 13
   Unit 14
   Unit 15
Chapter VI
   Unit 16
   Unit 17
   Unit 18
Chapter VII
   Unit 19
   Unit 20
   Unit 21
Chapter VIII
   Unit 22
   Unit 23
   Unit 24
Chapter IX
   Unit 25
   Unit 26
   Unit 27
Chapter X
   Unit 28
   Unit 29
   Unit 30
Chapter XI
   Unit 31
   Unit 32
   Unit 33
Chapter XII
   Unit 34
   Unit 35
   Unit 36


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