Learn to Write 25% of All Words Using Single Letters in 10 Minutes

16 minute read

Have you ever considered how many times we write words like "the" and "this"? Believe it or not, 25% of a typical English text is used by forms of just 10 words like these. When you stop to think about it, although these common words may be fairly short to begin with, they could be much shorter.

Now, I'm not suggesting that I'd like to pick up some great literature, sit down in a comfy chair, and open my book to find many of the words compressed into little symbols so the typist could save some keystrokes. I like the English language as it is. But I also write a lot of notes, and I don't care much about their aesthetic qualities. I just want to be able to write them efficiently and read them later.

That's where some simple shorthand comes in. The system I use is called Dutton Speedwords. (For the impatient, here's my cheat sheet.) If you so desire, it can actually be used as a complete International Auxiliary Language, but those of us less ambitious can benefit greatly from a much shorter and more informal study.

The only section you have to read to accomplish what I suggest in the title is "The First 10 Words." But there's a lot more to Speedwords, so I recommend checking out the rest if the first part interests you. It gets slightly more technical (but not difficult), so for those of you who are a little bit rusty on grammar terms, I've added links in possibly confusing places.


The First 10 Words
The Oxford University Press has a list of the 100 most frequently used words in the English language. I'll come back to the full list in a moment, but for now, before you get impatient to see how I'm going to manage what I suggested in the title: The 10 most commonly used words (in various forms) comprise 25% of an average text, so if you learn the list below and start using it regularly, you're done! (This list actually contains 11 items because 'e' and 'y' have the same meaning, just different tenses.)
  • l - the *
  • e - am, is, are, be
  • y - was, were, been
  • a - to
  • d - of
  • & - and **
  • u - a, an ***
  • i - in
  • k - that
  • h - have, has
  • j - I, me ***

[*] That's a lowercase letter L.

[**] There's of course nothing magical about the form of the ampersand common on the computer keyboard used here; any other form of the sign you prefer works too.

[***] Obviously, English I and a are already one letter, but leaving them in their English forms causes them to collide with other Speedwords, since the system was not specifically designed with purely English in mind. In practice, these are not large problems; it is nearly always immediately clear which is being used from context. On rare occasions, they can impede comprehension until you notice the alternative interpretation. If you aren't interested in continuing into more shorthand, you could certainly pick other letters for the colliding ones. And it's totally fine to continue using the English versions on occasion as you get used to the system; as you get more familiar with it, you will probably start automatically using the "correct" Speedwords versions.

General Note: There is no conjugation or declension in Speedwords; 'e' means both have and has and 'j' means both I and me. There are also no fixed parts of speech; a speedword can be used as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb where it makes sense.There are tenses: prefixing the letter 'y' to a verb makes it past tense, and placing the separate word 'r' (will) before a verb makes it future (this is the same syntax as English). 'y' by itself is the past tense of 'e'. And in all cases, if the tense is obvious from context, there is no need to specify it.

90 More Words
If you stop learning right there and just work on using those 11 abbreviations over the next few days, you'll already have improved your scribbling efficiency considerably. But if you like this idea, you can do quite a bit better with only a modest amount of time. If you learn the 90 remaining words in the top 100, you can double the percentage of words you can abbreviate to 50%, using mostly single and double and just a few triple letters. Actually, there are fewer than 90 to learn, because some of them are repeats, like we and us, which as you just learned above are written exactly the same in Speedwords.The top 100 English words can be represented with 80 Speedwords. For your learning pleasure, the list is available on my Dutton Speedwords Cheat Sheet. I will continue the frequency list here so you can get an idea of the language; this is not the best form to memorize from, though.

I have made some modifications on the official Speedwords usage; I think the changes make the system better, at least for my purposes, but others might not, and I certainly don't want to present this as an unaltered version, so I've noted the places where my usage differs from standard. There are also notes for features of the language that would be useful to learn, so have a look at them.
  1. t - it
  2. f - for
  3. n - not (also #46, no)
  4. o - on
  5. m - with
  6. s - he (also #48, him)
  7. z - as (also #61, than)
  8. v - you
  9. q - do [*1]
  10. a - at (also in top 10, to)
  11. c - this, these
  12. b - but
  13. si - his
  14. by - by
  15. d - from (also in top 10, of)
  16. g - they (also #58, them)
  17. w - we (also #90, us)
  18. di - say
  19. sh - her [*2]
  20. sh - she
  21. or - or
  22. u - an (also in top 10, a)
  23. r - will
  24. ji - my
  25. 1 - one [*3]
  26. al - all
  27. yr - would
  28. kp - there [*4]
  29. gi - their
  30. qm - what [*4]
  31. so - so
  32. up - up
  33. out - ix
  34. x - if
  35. ab - about
  36. qr - who [*4]
  37. ob - get, obtain
  38. q- - which [*4]
  39. go - go
  40. j - me (also in top 10, I)
  41. qz - when [*4]
  42. ma - make
  43. p - can, be able to
  44. idi - like, similar
  45. te - time
  46. n - no (also #3, not)
  47. jus - just [*5]
  48. s - him (also #6, he)
  49. sa - know
  50. ne - take
  51. erz - people [*6]
  52. ia - into
  53. an - year
  54. vi - your
  55. gu - good (also #79, well)
  56. u- - some [*3]
  57. yp - could
  58. g - them (also #16, they)
  59. vu - see
  60. ot - other
  61. z - than (also #7, as)
  62. nux - then
  63. nu - now
  64. ser - look [*9]
  65. sol - only
  66. ko - come
  67. ti - its
  68. ov - over
  69. pu - think
  70. ai - also
  71. ba - back
  72. po - after
  73. us - use
  74. 2 - two
  75. qd - how [*3]
  76. wi - our
  77. ra - work
  78. 1. - first [*7]
  79. gu - well [*10] (also #55, good)
  80. -d - way [*3]
  81. eb - even
  82. nov - new
  83. des - want
  84. zi - because
  85. jj- - any
  86. c - these [*8]
  87. da - give
  88. de - day
  89. my - most
  90. w - us (also #17, we)


[*1] In official Speedwords, this is used only as a question modifier, as in, "Do you have a pencil with you?" The word 'fa' is used for the sense to do something. I rarely observe this distinction and simply use the shorter form. In either case, it is not used or needed at all where it is used simply as syntactic glue: "No, I do not have a pencil" could be rendered as "N, j n h u pencil" ("no, I not have...", or perhaps with technically correct but unusual English grammar, "no, I have not a pencil").

[*2] This could also be 'shi' depending on the context ('-i' makes a pronoun possessive). See "him" and "his book" versus "her" and "her book": in English, there is no difference between the forms. It is of course not necessary for you to do this correctly if you are only writing notes for yourself, but you'll probably get used to doing it correctly without trying once you start using the 'i' for other possessives.

[*3] There are actual roots for many numbers, but I have not bothered to learn them, as the numerals do perfectly well. For one as an indefinite pronoun, as in "One should not stab oneself with a pencil, as doing so is quite painful," use 'eri' ("something associated with 'person'" – see Modifiers, below); sometimes I will write '-r' instead (see note 4, below).

[*4]This is part of an unofficial reform called "Speedwords Correlatives"; the original Speedwords uses irregular forms, but I use the following forms, dreamed up by Ron Hale-Evans, instead.

First parts:

  • q- what/which
  • c- this
  • u- some
  • j- every
  • n- no
  • jj- any
  • k- that

Second parts:

  • -p place
  • -m thing
  • -d way
  • -k kind
  • -y reason
  • -z time
  • -r one (person)
  • -t amount

A first part and second part are combined: 'um' = something, 'jr' = everyone, 'jjz' = any time. You can make compounds this way that are not single words in English; 'kt' = that amount, for instance. Also, even ones that do form words can be used in the sense of separate words: 'ud' = somehow, but also some way.

I also use single parts occasionally (with the dash): 'u-' = some, '-r' = one.

[*5] This is intended in the sense of "fair, right." If you can't tell from earlier notes, I'm not picky about the technical meanings of words as long as I understand them, so I often use it for other meanings of just as well.

[*6] This is the plural of 'er', person.

[*7] This is a German convention for ordinal numbers which I use: '1.' = first, '23.' = twenty-third, etc. It's faster than writing the little letters after the numeral.

[*8] If In want to make it explicitly plural, I sometimes use 'cz'. Doing so is not necessary for comprehension, though, if you try it.

[*9] In the sense to look for, search. Similar words: 'no' = to look, notice, 'vu' = to see.

[*10] Good and well are written the same.

One of the things that makes Speedwords powerful is the system of affixes, which are completely regular and affect both the grammar and the meaning of roots. For instance, '-z' makes anything plural and '-t' makes anything diminutive. To get started, you should learn these suffixes and prefixes:

  • -z pluralizes: 'er', person, 'erz', people. Plurals may be omitted if there is a count or something else that clearly identifies them as plural: 'erz go kp' for people go there, but '4 er e kp' for four people are there.
  • -i makes a pronoun possessive: 'g', they, 'gi', their. More completely, it indicates "association," or a particular similar word. You can also see this usage in this list with 'idi', like – 'id' means identical or the same. To make other things possessive, add a single apostrophe: Speedwords Soren’ = English Soren's.
  • -x or -o makes the opposite of something. (To make pronunciation easier, -o is used if the word ends in a consonant, and -x if it ends in a vowel.) You can see this usage several times in the list: 'i' = in, 'ix' = out; 'nu' = now, 'nux' = then.
  • me- and my- form the comparative and superlative, respectively, and are also words in their own right without the dash: 'megu' = better, 'my' = most. (To compare with something else, use 'z', #61: 'j e megu z sh' = I am better than her.)
  • y- makes a verb past tense: 'h' = have, 'yh' = had. ('y', was, is a shortened form of 'ye', used since past forms of be are so common.)
  • u- forms the present continuous or present participle: 'j ko' = I come, 'j uko' = I am coming.
Real-Life Examples
Here's a composed statement about the list of 90 words:

  • J yh a ser up 4 d l ro d motz...r sa g d nu o!  ('ro' = list, 'mot' = word)

Sometimes I really do write extended passages of pure Speedwords. But when I do, it's an accident: unless you're specifically trying to remove your native language from the writing, you will of course find use for plenty of non-Speedwords complex words. When I write fast (which is obviously what you're doing when writing in shorthand), I often miss perfectly good places to use abbreviations, too – extra credit for finding some that were on the lists and not used where possible in the following list.

Once you've learned the words and grammar on this page (or better, from the list at the bottom), you should be able to read these actual sentences from my journal comfortably.

  • Kp e uk d live, amplified rock concert i l common area. Which yr e cool kun f l fact k t e 11:19 PM i u dorm, u fu feet away d erz' rooms. ('kun' = except, 'fu' = few)
  • I noticed qz j picked up ji phone at 8:13 k j yh u IT shift at 8.
  • Eb though t e n l my-eloquent title, j yp n resist uma l pun.
  • So kp e u lot a di ab yesterday -- b, uqm surprisingly, t al basically fits under 2 headings. ('uqm' = somewhat, my own invention, a nonstandard mix of the Correlatives)
  • M u gu bu, al delays e short. ('bu' = book) [An aphorism I made up after a transit delay.]
  • ...Esp ov l 'Net, qp w pn see jj- cues ab qm otz e upu. ('pn' = 'p n'; 'esp' is my own abbreviation for especially.)
  • Judging by k & l next response, t seems g y trying a get Anki a ma [flash]cards relating a Windows XP f g by uq c [importing a Windows configuration file]. G pi e beyond further help... ('pi' = may)
Learning These Speedwords
So you think this sounds good and you want to start learning. Where do you go from here? I made a little Dutton Speedwords Cheat Sheet (OpenDocument source) that you can print out and refer to. It contains a trimmed version of equivalents for the 100 most-common English words, with numerals, duplicate entries for the same Speedwords, and words that are the same in English and Speedwords removed. This leaves you with 80 to memorize. There's also a chart of the Speedwords Correlatives and the list of modifiers/affixes presented above. If you use an electronic flashcards program, you can import this tab-separated text file containing the contents of the sheet and start studying right away. (If you don't use one, maybe now's a good time to try Anki!)Other than that, just start throwing them in whenever you write something to yourself. If you have some spare time, you can copy some text and use Speedwords where possible; this is a good exercise because you can concentrate on using the shorthand versions wherever you know them, instead of thinking so much about what you're writing and probably passing over chances to abbreviate

Miscellaneous Notes
One advantage of having the shorthand symbols be ordinary letters of the alphabet is that you already know how to make the symbols, but another is that you can type just as easily as you can write. Personally, I rarely have reason to type shorthand, since I type at over 100 words per minute anyway, but others have found it very helpful.
Thoughts on two practical obstacles to the use of shorthand:
  • "Other people will need to read my notes and won't be able to." In about two years, this has happened to me exactly once. And it wasn't exactly a "need" situation: someone asked me in class if they could borrow them, and they simply asked someone else instead. (Of course, the number of times where I would have written in Speedwords if someone else hadn't needed to be able to read it, say on an essay exam or a form, is much higher!)
  • "I'll accidentally expect someone else will be able to read a note written in Speedwords." This has also happened a grand total of once. I realized my error approximately two seconds later, grabbed it back, and read it out loud to them.
Further Reading & Learning
Dutton Reginald's official dictionary, recently transcribed from a long-out-of-print paper copy, contains approximately 3,500 words and compounds that you can learn. At the very least, you can open it and punch Ctrl-Fif you notice you're writing a word repeatedly and would like an equivalent for it, or on the rare occasion that you later read something you've written and don't remember what the word means. In addition, it has a nice list of all the prefixes and suffixes and a few points of grammar that are absolutely worth learning if you want to continue beyond the word lists presented in this article.This old Geocities pageis a huge mess, but contains a few interesting things. Kafejo.com: A nice pronunciation guide (yes, this is supposed to be pronounceable – it might make it easier to learn and think about) and some other information about Speedwords.