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A quick shorthand test

John Humphrys' shorthand
John Humphrys' Pitman shorthand note. Can you decipher it?

In the ever changing landscape of digital media, is it still worthwhile for journalists to learn shorthand?

The reporters notepad and scrawl is synonymous with the trade, but with ever more sophisticated recording devices, some believe shorthand is now outdated.

Now, the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) is campaigning to make it clear that shorthand is still a vital part of the journalists' toolbox.

"Strangely, its more necessary than ever," says Kim Fletcher, chairman of the NCTJ.

"If you have a shorthand note you can find the quote very quickly. You go in with a tape recorder, or a digital recorder, and if you've spent an hour in there with your recorder you've got an hour of tape to go through, that takes quite a long time."

I was hopeless at it, but you had to do it
John Humphrys

There are practical situations - most notably in the courts - he says, where you cannot take a digital recorder and you need a shorthand note.

But beyond the practical implications, there is a theoretical reason for learning shorthand.

John and Justin compare shorthand skills

"I think it demonstrates a real dedication to the craft," says Mr Fletcher.

"And it means in a day when so many people are jumping up blogging, calling themselves journalists. You go and take the trouble to learn shorthand, and it suggests you're serious about things."

For years, passing a test in shorthand has been an essential part of learning to be a journalist. Today presenter John Humphrys learned Pitman shorthand at technical college, before starting out on his career.

Trainee journalists now learn Teeline shorthand, a form that divides opinion. Many find it easier and think Pitman antiquated, but those from the old Pitman school, like John Humphrys, don't even think it counts as proper shorthand.

Whichever shorthand you pick, it looks like those seeking a career as a professional journalist will be struggling with the squiggles for some time to come.


Can you translate John's shorthand? Let us know what it says using the form below.

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What a waste of time. I've been a journalist for 20 years, never learnt shorthand and never needed to. The NCTJ should be spending more time teaching students about the cutting-edge technology used in modern media. Perhaps the people doing the training prefer to remain in their own 'comfort zones'. Shorthand might be a rare skill but it is an unnecessary one in 2009.
Neville Peters, London, UK

What's the problem here? These notes are easy to understand....
Cheddar cheese
Bottle of Chianti
2lbs carrots
Bag of potatoes
etc etc
Frank, Sutherland

My grandmother (she's 85) showed me her shorthand. I had no idea this thing existed and found it awesome. Too bad I can't read/write it.
Lukas, London, UK

I can certainly read most of John's shorthand having struggled to learn it at evening classes at the Pitman college when I was 16 back in 1964. I never got past doubling, but nevertheless managed to get to 125 wpm during my secretarial career. My first job was in the typing pool at the then British Railways, LMR, Euston. All the older male clerks at that time had been required to learn shorthand and used to write their letters in shorthand for the girls in the typing pool to translate. Like handwriting everybody had different styles which made for some interesting decoding.
Pauline Atkins, London

I did an evening class in Teeline shorthand after taking my degree, and it's been one of the most useful things I've done. I used it a lot in my first secretarial jobs and it helped me land my dream job at the BBC. I still use it now as a mum ... making Christmas lists that the family won't be able to decipher!
Vicki McKay, Chichester

It's a tragedy that such a valuable skill is largely no longer used in the office. I learned Pitman shorthand at college and used it constantly throughout the '70s and '80s but nowadays, mostly just for myself when taking messages, etc.
Chris Leeming, Halifax, UK

I can read some of it but not all, but shorthand like handwriting becomes quite an individual thing. I did Pitman new era back in 1976 and have always found it useful....I used it only yesterday when having my annual appraisal at work in the Library! Long Live Shorthand!
Sal Smithson, Broxbourne, Herts

I learned shorthand and typing when I attended secretarial college. I am now 75 and still use both skills. Most of John's shorthand is clear and decipherable and I agree with him that the newspaper industry should still use it.
Audrey Marshall, Battle

We all develop our own styles over the years and I'm sure John would have difficulty with mine but then that's the beauty of shorthand!
Kenneth Jackson, Sandon, Stafford

I have wanted to learn short hand for years, thinking it would help me in taking notes at lectures and meetings more quickly. When I started a Masters in Research three years ago, I taught myself some Pitman's from a book. What I've learned has been useful, but it's not possible to find many places that teach shorthand, so improvement is unlikely. So what sounds I can work out from John's shorthand, put together don't make sense to me. I want to learn shorthand but options are few.
Liz, Aylesbury, UK

I completed my NCTJ course in July still can't find a job, only two interviews. I learnt Teeline shorthand and on my work experience I found it to be an essential skill at accurately recording information people give to you. People presume as technology improves then journalists need to be less skilled, this is both misleading and poorly thought out. With journalism jobs being so competitive (most adverts will only accepts job applicants with 100wpm speed) I only have 80wpm shorthand and am therefore completely priced out of the job market. Regardless, I still love shorthand!
A.S., UK

I was given my nan's Pitman's shorthand dictionary when I was about 8 but only learnt a very small amount. I'm a fast typer and a quite neat writer, but I would still love the opportunity to learn shorthand. There is definitely still a place for it in the world, whether for journalism or people like me, students trying to keep up in long seminars.
Tegan, Birmingham, UK

The best thing I ever did was stick with the shorthand lessons while doing my NCTJ journalism training. Only about four of us took the test at the end of the course and though I just squeezed a pass it became invaluable when I started in local newspapers and is still a vital tool for my work. How journalists - of any type - who don't have it actually cope is beyond me. Just a shame I can't read John's scrawl - I'm a Teeline man!
Michael Molcher, Leeds

No I cannot decipher what he has written. It all looks like, well nothing, to me however my 3 year old niece may be able to understand it. I find it incredible that someone, somewhere is able to read or understand what look like really bad version of an ancient Egyptian scribble! It's like doctor's notes to the dispensary pharmacist.... have you ever tried understanding exactly what it is they've prescribed you? I went to school with a pharmacist and it boggles me how she know what the 'scribble' says! I take my hat of to anyone who can write and understand this 'foreign' language, I wish I could do it!
A. R. Williams, Island of St Helena

I can't read the shorthand because I do teeline. But it's a vital journalistic skill. Other people on the two journalism courses I did laughed at my dedication to it, but I'd worked for a year in a newspaper and knew I needed it. The key thing is that it makes one focus very carefully on what people are saying. Reporters who don't use it don't focus closely enough on the exact content of what interviewees are saying to them, I think.
Robert Wright, London, UK

I had to learn Teeline shorthand when I did a journalism diploma and find it really useful for reporting. In some fields - editing, for example, or sports writing - it may be more useful but for situations like the courts, or where you've conducted a 15-minute interview but only want one or two quotes from it, it's invaluable. Not only that, but it's a very fulfilling thing to learn and great fun once you master it.
Robin Budd, Howden, Yorkshire

I can read most of John's shorthand but I expect, like the rest of us, he has developed a few of his own short-forms. From secretarial college in 1969 to today, there hasn't been one job when I haven't used it. My current boss is very impressed and loves the idea of calling me in to take dictation. Several people here would love to learn it but I think courses are quite limited now with the introduction of tee line, script and, of course, so many managers having their own PCs. I love being an old fashioned secretary; even if they do type their own letters they have no idea about formatting etc. etc. Give me a shorthand book and pencil any day to copying indecipherable handwriting.
Marilyn Elster, Bletchley, UK

I learnt Teeline as part of NCTJ journalism exams. I used to use it every day as a reporter and found it invaluable. I'm no longer a reporter but am still glad I have it as a skill and use it regularly to make notes, etc. I was at a seminar yesterday and wrote copious notes, which I can still read back. I have even been known to write shorthand in a birthday card!
Andy Puttnam, London

I work at a newspaper and I'm new to the trade. I'd be lost without my teeline shorthand. I have a dictaphone but it just sits at the bottom of my bag and is never used- it's just so impractical and time consuming compared to shorthand.
Andrew, Margate, UK

I learned Pitman shorthand at my secretarial course in 1962/1963, together with typing, and went on to increase my speeds to 120 wpm shorthand, 80 wpm typing. I have used both skills throughout my working life, and still do, although shorthand is not required so much these days, so my speed has dropped.

When having to change jobs when I was 41 I had to do a shorthand test at an agency. I said I was qualified at 120 wpm, but did not know what my current speed was. Dictation started, which was fine, but as I was getting near the end I was having trouble keeping up. At the end I commented on this, and was told 'I noticed you were coping so I increased the speed'!!! Not fair. Think I was doing about 140 wpm! Not totally accurate but it was not familiar text.
Pam Cobain, Liverpool

I was taught at Pitman's College in Russell Square, London back in the 1960s and hated it. I ended up developing my own form of it which no one else could read unless they had a very agile mind. I could actually type faster than I could take down shorthand (80wpm shorthand) Speaking speed was considered to be 120wpm.

I agree learning shorthand is a sign of commitment. It also means that no one else is going to be able to read what you've written quickly or easily as most shorthand writers do develop even shorter forms of some words which they know from the context of the sentence. It's more of an aide memoire than anything else.
Jenny, Taunton

Shorthand is bit like golf. You'll be hopeless at it unless you get in lots of practice. All journalists should have shorthand. Recording equipment is a poor substitute. My Pitman's which, like John Humphrys, I was taught in a class full of girls, was at its best when out covering courts and councils, but when they put you behind a desk your speed drops markedly.
Bill Heaney, Dumbarton, Scotland





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