f u cn rd ths (If you can read this…)

So intoned the billboards on the NYC subways for years. The School of Speedwriting wanted to make sure people knew that Gregg shorthand was not the only way to go, and while I never had the opportunity to learn either, it seems to make perfect sense to me. My ex was a whiz at shorthand, and she could take dictation like a court reporter – but all those squiggles! Worse than Arabic, if you ask me.

Of course, it’s based on being able to recognize words without the vowels. Since 2003,  this has been going around the internet in various forms, the latest one with the header “Only Smart People Can Read This”:

It is doubtful that any real research has been done on this phenomenon at Cambridge, but the underlying principle makes sense – experienced readers don’t decode, but rather they read words as entire units. This is useful to understand as I teach Japanese students the mysteries of English spelling. They get so wrapped up in “i before e” that they forget to learn new words in the same way that they learn their own kanji – as units.

To the untrained eye, each of these Japanese characters looks very much the same, 人, 大, 木, 本, 天, 火, 米, 犬, 水, 氷, 入, yet a Japanese person recognizes each without even thinking of it – a single jot can make the difference between big and dog, or between person and enter.

We do the same thing ourselves – and when presented with a block of text with mixed up letters (or missing vowels), our minds do what they do best – they look for things that look close to something recognizable, and usually come up with an accurate match almost instantly, unless of course you booted up a Unix system running “Fortune” and got “f u cn rd ths, itn tyg h myxbl cd…” – the Semitic peoples (Jews and Arabs) have been doing this for thousands of years – like anything, you just get used to it.

Nowadays, young people use this to their advantage when sending txt msgs (text messages): R u there? K. ttyl. (Are you there? OK. Talk to you later.) If things keep going the way they are, we may all be doing speedwriting whether we like it or not.

Th Ld Wlf hs Spkn.

114 responses to “f u cn rd ths (If you can read this…)

  1. I recently came upon some old notes I’d written over 30 years ago using Forkner shorthand (very similar to Speedwriting; I achieved 100 words per minute in secretarial college) and was shocked that I could still read them! It’s amazing how adaptable our brains are; most of the time we don’t even realize we’re ‘reading’ something that’s not quite ‘right’. Great post.

  2. It would be interesting to see further studies done on reading/writing shorthand. Would you say there is a difference between shorthand and shortcuts (as in text messages i.e. “R u there?”)? Fun read, thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for a great article. This is also what makes it difficult for someone to proofread their own work. We have a fixed image in our mind of what we have written and it is sometimes difficult to see our own mistakes.

    • Thanks much – and so true. As a translator (or a writer) I often find that setting my work aside for a day or so to let it “ripen” makes all the difference in the world when I come back to it. Sometimes it’s like “who wrote this garbage?” 😉

  4. Interesting. I took shorthand and I don’t have problems with Speedwriting or Speedreading. I just do not like texting! That is probably why I don’t have a smartphone. If you have something smarter than you it just won’t be worth it. (LOL) Thank you for this post. and Congrats for getting Freshly Pressed!! 🙂 😉

  5. What’s interesting is that less capable readers don’t. If a letter is missing or illegible, they cannot use context to reasonably guess what the word might be. Kids text message so well mainly because they use a highly restricted vocabulary. I’ve never seen any official studies of this, but I would guess ordinary “text” conversations rely on only a few hundred words and stock phrases.

  6. Interesting observations. I am one of speed readers and writers who can understand words no matter how jumbled they are. I wish someone would do actual research on it. That’s something I could get behind.

  7. The squiggly version of shorthand was the only option when I was in high school, however they didn’t run the subject the year that I could have learned it due to lack of interest. When I hit university, I created my own version of speed writing that got me through, and came in handy when I started working as a secretary. Now, my typing speed has eclipsed my shorthand speed so, as long as there aren’t too many speakers, I can comfortably take meeting minutes on a laptop. If the discussion speeds up, I can easily switch to typg in my shthnd.

      • Hehe…oops! A good example of why it can be hard to read others’ shorthand (shrthnd? 🙂 ). I often use the same abbreviation for a range of different words but I know what each means because I understand the context when I’m reading it back.

  8. It took me ages to work out what the rest of the first picture was saying! The Cambridge research is really interesting, it’s one of those things that as soon as you’re told it it becomes blindingly obvious that we can do it. this is a really nice post!

  9. Interesting post. I especially agree with your last sentence about how eventually “we may all be doing speedwriting whether we like it or not”. On a funny but somewhat off topic story…you mentioned how all those kanji characters look alike…i speak Chinese so I’m assuming that those characters have similar meanings in both languages. I once met a girl with a huge 大 on her neck…when asked, she said it meant “fire”…oops! Seems like a single jot can make the difference between having “big” or “fire” forever scarred into your neck!

  10. As a stenographer, I hate the idea of speedwriting’s evolution, particularly in the “jejemon” cyberlanguage form (leetspeak in that sense).

    Howbeit, I’m open with the idea that, whether I like it or not, it’s where speedwriting is headed.

    H’m. I wonder how the future generation’s writing looks like…

  11. I don’t know if learning shorthand is really that worthwhile nowadays. There is nothing more frustrating than going back over notes you’ve taken and being unable to read them. Most people can type quickly enough that it doesn’t matter.

  12. great post! I was always intrigued with people being able to write in a straight line without looking at the paper they were writing on.I could never do it. My next challenge will be to learn writing shorthand without looking at the notebook.
    congrats on being FPed 🙂

  13. Very interesting. I did start to teach myself shorthand. Never got far. But the few points I learned, I still use today. And texting is a whole ‘nother language to me. But the Cambridge experiment – get out! Great job.

  14. this was confusing for me to understand at first but now if I think about it speedwrite is like text speak and now I guess almost every teen in the country can speedwrite which I think will probably change the world, its sort of like a new skill that everybody will get in a few decades.
    yours sincerely Jacob Hopkins

  15. Do you think there are people who cannot read this? If this is how the human mind works….then pretty much everyone (who can read English) should be able to read “The phenomenal power of the human mind…”. I am just wondering if there are human minds that refuse to put this mess into words.

  16. How interesting. I am old enough to remember when shorthand was taught in high school, though I never took it, because I was sure I didn’t want to be a secretary. I thought all the little squiggles were meaningless anyway. Interesting that texting has turned us back 60 some years to where we were back then – looking for a way to save time by writing shortened words, except now we’re doing them with out thumbs.

    Congratulations for being FP’d. HG

  17. i learned to use a typewriter one summer at my dad’s military base. it was a proper program. i think they even taught us shorthand although i dont remember. maybe a deca later i turned buddhist and learned to silent many things but my mind. i lost the use of words for the longest time and then they found me. and they come in short-hand and they come at great speed. someonencalled it micropoetry too.

  18. I can read it all, I am used to shorthand, but I am a stickler for grammer. I prefer words to be written out completely, if someone texts me saying, “k, thx” I tend to cringe a bit. Oddly enough, my own mother uses shorthand in texting… she can barely see the screen!

    I enjoyed your post 🙂

  19. Great post, really interesting I remember my Nan telling me about shorthand and remembering how I was in awe of it, but in today’s context it is very common with texting and instant messaging. Well done for being freshly pressed ad thank you for sharing!

  20. i don’t really understand text speak. I don’t use it.. honestly. my thoughts are if i can’t understand it, who will? But eventually you need to adapt and I learned how to shortened words. instead of saying “who are you?” we say… “hu u?”

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  22. Just wanted to leave a note here. The word for enter 入 and the word for person 人 are actually very different. In person the first stroke is longer. In enter the first stroke is shorter and the second stroke caps it. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much but it makes a big difference when seen. At least its different enough to say it isn’t just a dot. 米 also has nothing in common with any of the other kanji examples.

    but besides that the “Japanese” kanji you have here are mostly Chinese. The only one there that’s actually Japanese is the one for ice. It’s a common mistake. As kanji are derived from Chinese text, it can seem like they’re all the same but the word for sky 天 is written with the top segment longer than the bottom in Japanese. See http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%A4%A9

    • Thank you for your comment. Before anything, I acknowledge your status as a native hanzi user, which gives you a special insight I do not possess. However, there are a couple of points I wanted to make.

      1) 人 and 入 are indeed very different characters, as you pointed out – one has two strokes, the other three. The word “jot” in this sense does not mean “dot,” but rather a “small mark.” However, to someone who is not familiar with 漢字, they will probably look identical.

      2) The issue with “tian” is curious. 天 actually *does* have the first stroke longer than the second, but you have to look closely. What we’re dealing with is how these characters are represented in the various Unicode fonts. Notice the difference here:

      The ones on top are Japanese, the ones on the bottom Chinese – and yet Arial Unicode MS represents the character 天 identically in both cases, and whatever font WordPress chooses for its display does the same. Therefore, it’s not really a “mistake” – it’s just the way the Internet works.

      To a native Chinese or Japanese speaker, the difference in 漢字 forms would be instantly recognizable – again, to a non-native, the characters are virtually identical. Regardless of which character set they are drawn from, the characters 人, 大, 木, 本, 天, 火, 米, 犬, 水, 氷, and 入 all exist in both Chinese and Japanese, and have essentially the same root meaning with small variations. And thanks for reminding me about 木 and 本 – they belong in my series.

      You are correct from a semantic and ideographic standpoint that 米 and 氷 have nothing to do with each other – but a native English speaker who was learning either Chinese or Japanese could very easily confuse them until the difference had been internalized. Many times my Japanese students – some of whom speak very good English – will be reading along and read “now” when they should have read “new,” or something similar – the two words have different etymologies, but they look alike enough that if you’re reading quickly, mistakes can easily happen.

      Look at our words in English: person, large, tree, origin, heaven, fire, dog, water, ice, and enter. Every single one is different, and would be hard to confuse – in the same way, to a native Chinese eye, 人, 大, 木, 本, 天, 火, 米, 犬, 水, 氷, and 入 are each unique and nobody could possibly confuse one for the other. But look at the English words bob, bod, bog, bop, bot, bow, box, and boy – it’s easy to see how a non-English speaker, especially one learning a new alphabet, could get confused.

      Us 外國人 look at all these characters and basically what we see is variations on 大, and it takes a heap of study to learn the difference that a stroke or two makes. Remember, my post said right up front – to the untrained eye.

  23. Congrats on Fresh Press. Some of the comments are too funny. When I first saw your title, I didn’t get all the words, but when I actually opened the page it instantly registered. I did learn shorthand, became a secretary (shudder) and IMHO earned too much money for the dubious honor.

  24. Pingback: f u cn rd ths (If you can read this…) | Greg Soon Arts

  25. i really enjoyed this post. i often look back on notes i take during conference calls at work and laugh, thinking there is no way anyone aside from myself could decipher anything i’d written down. perhaps i missed my calling as a secretary?(my asst will think that’s hilarious, btw.)

    anyway, congrats on the Press – it was definitely worthy of it.



    • I’m always intrigued by people’s own shorthand creations, I had a teacher in high school whose last name was King, he developed his own system and called it Kinglish. I learned it once, but was too young to have the discipline to keep at it. Thanks for commenting!

  26. Hi! I found your blog via freshly pressed and am really enjoying the read 🙂 I learned teeline shorthand in college and remember how much work it took to go back and break down words into phonetics until we got used to it. Really fascinating to see some more of the history and how our brains work – and especially interesting to see your kanji discussion with the earlier commenter! Many thanks.

  27. At first I thought this post carefully used an obscenity with ‘F U’, until I saw the translation ‘if you’.
    Last I remember in shorthand class ‘while back, ‘f’ stood for ‘of’; ‘if’ would be ‘if’.
    But what do I know, it was a long time ago…like this post (sorry for my lateness).

    • Haha! You’re not the only one to see something else in f u cn rd ths… Each system has its own conventions, and I never learned Speedwriting to know the difference between “if” and “of”. Thanks for writing.!

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