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Shorthand still key to accuracy

SHAMED BY a scandal over its reporting, the British Broadcasting Corp. is sending its reporters back to school. Among other things, they reportedly will be required to learn shorthand so that quotations on the venerable network will be accurately rendered.

They needn't come to the United States, though. Shorthand as a school subject mostly disappeared in the early 1990s.

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There are still some courses taught in adult education, but you'll have to look hard to find one in high schools or even at places such as Villa Julie College, which once turned out a steady supply of highly trained secretaries who could accurately take down the words of a boss in shorthand and translate them into impeccable English.

Veteran business teachers can write the obit for shorthand.

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"It happened just about when I retired in 1992," says Margaret Metz, who taught business at Bel Air High School for 24 years. "Shorthand was done in by the computer and a decline in the need for secretaries."

Suzanne Hawk, who retired in 1999 as a Harford County business teacher, writes recipes and telephone notes in shorthand "so I know I'll have it right." She uses the same method invented by the Irishman John Robert Gregg in 1888 and refined several times over 116 years.

"Shorthand is basically a foreign language," says Hawk, who lives in Forest Hill, "and it takes a year and a half or two years to become really expert. Students didn't want to devote an hour each evening to shorthand homework."

In her day, says Hawk, women's career choices were basically three: teacher, nurse or secretary. "Today, there are so many more opportunities, and the role of the secretary has changed completely."

When bosses could keyboard their own correspondence and then spell-check it, there was no longer a need for a stenographer or secretary trained in shorthand. Meanwhile, newspapers, courts and other enterprises that require stenography turned to voice recorders that could instantly produce readable text.

Hawk says one of shorthand's advantages is that it teaches grammar, spelling and punctuation. "It's particularly good at teaching where to put commas. My students used to call me the comma queen."

The demise of shorthand is nothing short of tragic, says Marc Semler, a database manager for Montclair State University in New Jersey. Semler, who taught himself shorthand, is trying to breathe life into a corpse that's awfully cold.

"Shorthand helps people think and write," he says. "And it's the only way to accurately take down what people say. Tape recorder batteries fail, tape breaks. Even a good typist can't get it all down."

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The normal speaking rate is about 140 words per minute, Stemler says. People trained in shorthand can maintain that rate with complete accuracy, he says. Those who try to do it in longhand -- writing down most words -- can't do more than 30 words a minute."

Semler, a former secretary, concedes that it's "a little weird" that he's been fascinated by shorthand since junior high school. One day he came across his mother's Gregg textbook and thought the shorthand language "looked like a code. I was fascinated by codes, and it seemed a nifty way to write."

He had to learn shorthand secretively, though. It was a girl thing at 13.

At Bucknell University, Semler says, "It was shorthand that taught me how to write. I liken the symbol system of shorthand to computer language. Many people are good at both, and many of these same people are calligraphers," practitioners of artistic handwriting.

In college, fellow students would come to Semler to check their lecture notes. "I had the best notes in college, complete notes."

Semler has a Web site (www.geocities.com/shorthand shorthandshorthand) on which he discusses the dozens of shorthand and speed-writing methods, offers tips for learning the languages, lists shorthand-related items for sale and provides links to related sites.

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"People need shorthand today more than ever," Semler says. "I'm getting requests from reporters, students, people writing books, people who need to take notes for whatever reason."

One ancient note-taker, I learned from Semler's Web site, was Roman orator Cicero's secretary, Tiro, who used an ancient form of shorthand to record his boss' speeches for posterity.


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