One of the most regrettable decisions of my misspent youth was not taking the typing course offered by my high school. Others may have foreseen the huge amount of time I was destined to spend in front of a keyboard, but not I. At the time, typing was something that secretaries did, or maybe college students, but not most people.

Another skill I wish I had developed better is that of shorthand. Although my high school had no such classes, we did have quite an old shorthand textbook at home. I learned the rudiments and used it to take notes in college, but I never became a real expert.

Shorthand still appeals to me. Not for practical reasons--I almost never write anything out in longhand any more (except mathematics, where shorthand is little help). But then I frequently undertake to learn things for impractical reasons. I like shorthand as a prime example of lucid thinking and brutal efficiency.

Several shorthand systems have been devised. I studied the Gregg system. Based on a superficial glance at the others, I still like Gregg the best--it seems the most fluid and natural.

The example above shows the Lord's Prayer. The first mark, that looks like a smile, is the letter r, which also represents the word "our". The last mark in the first line consists of the shorthand letters k-m representing the word "come". The last squiggle in the second line shows the shorthand letters b-r-e-d (see the smile in the middle of the squiggle?), or the word "bread" (Gregg shorthand works phonetically). Generally one squiggle corresponds to one word, but sometimes a phrase of short words is also written as a single squiggle. For example, the second squiggle in the second line consists of the letters l-b-d-n, representing the phrase "will be done".

Every communication channel has a certain (greater or lesser) level of redundancy. For shorthand, the level of redundancy is sacrificed as much as possible for the sake of brevity. A shorthand message carries more potential for misunderstanding than an ordinary handwritten message, but the system is designed to be error-tolerant. For example, the inverted smile is the k sound (as in the word "come" above). Lengthen the inverted smile (maybe by accident), and it becomes a hard g, so "come" becomes "gum". But the two words are similar enough in sound that a reader is likely to understand that "come" was intended.

By contrast, suppose you write in a letter to your Aunt Sadie that you "reamed the clog out with a plumber's snake." But you have sloppy handwriting, so "clog" comes out looking like "dog." Suddenly your Christmas checks from Aunt Sadie are a lot smaller and you have no idea why. This would never happen with shorthand. "Clog" might come out looking like "glog" or "clock" or "croc", but never "dog."

Shorthand is almost a lost art, destroyed by recording machines and the now universal necessity for everyone to use a keyboard. Shorthand could be extremely useful in the coming era of touchscreens. It would be the ideal interface for entering text into an iPhone, for example. I predict, however, that it would never catch on--because in our day anything demanding effort without immediate gratification has gone out of style.

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