A Problem With A

It appears that many words beginning with A are outlined incorrectly in the Gregg literature. I’m using DJS so maybe there’s some distinction in Anniversay that resolves the issue. Take the word “attain.” It is written with an A circle at the beginning. Whether it is pronounced with an A as in “say,” or A as in “act,” or A as in “arm” nothing works. In reality, this, and many other A words are prononuced with a U as in “cup.” Now I’m fairly certain that it’s not just a regional thing. If you look up how to pronounce these A words you’ll hear the U come through. My assertion is that Gregg, Leslie, and Zoubek should have gone with the oo-hook. Did they just pronounce words differently way back when? Is there any explanation for this? Something is certainly awry.

Previous post:
Next post:
7 comments Add yours
  1. I think that when Gregg said that you write it as pronounced, he did so realising that he should not be taken too literally.  For example, pronunciation in the US compared to UK is different but does not mean that the differences are reflected in the text books.  (I have long since come to terms with writing “either” as e-th rather than i-th — though I still write “mobile” as m-o-b-i-l rather than m-o-b-l.)

    Furthermore, pronunciation changes over time so should the system change too?  (Though it would have been very interesting if Pepys had had such a system to use, for we could have learnt a lot about spoken English at that time if he had.)

    When they say ignore the spelling, that’s fine in 99.9% of the cases but there is a slight blurring of the issue in the remaining 0.1%.  One should not deviate from the textbooks (despite your correct observation) because the systems have been designed quite tightly (especially in the case of Anniversary) and such deviation could produce occasional confusions.  (Well, at least I think things are a little bit fuzzy here and there.)  So 100% “correct” outlines are an unattainable goal — just go along with these annoyingly “incorrect” outlines.

    I think your solution of using a u is possibly just as bad, for the A in attain is more like a grunt (in my OED they use ă to specify it, and in the IPL it is ə I think) and a u would sound wrong to me.  But it was an interesting point you raise.



  2. Thanks for the great responses! TIL: that sound is a schwa.

    To your point Nicholas, the engineer in me wants strict rules, but I guess language doesn’t work that way. This comment from Carlos in Mysticmoon’s link is probably the closest I’ll get:

    In general, the schwa sound vowel will be written in shorthand using the orthographic vowel if the word starts with the schwa sound.

    I think I could probably do some data analysis using Arpabet and a dictionary of Gregg spellings to see where and how the schwa is most typically used. the hard part is building the Gregg dictionary. I have done just over a thousand words but that is nowhere close to enough.

  3. I have a copy of the official Gregg dictionary, and it is invaluable.

    If in doubt, I will try a fake American accent.

    Ultimately, I am coming to understand, the forms are what they are; they can be explained, but not necessarily predicted, by the underlying logic of the system. This accords with the experience of learning a foreign language.

    1. My wife laughs at me for constantly going around trying to pronounce random sounds. I can only imagine the looks I would get if I did that while also trying to do a different accent. Thanks for sharing!

      I did recently get a dictionary. And you’re right, it has been extremely helpful.The foreign language analogy is a good one.

    2. There’s a whole series of Gregg dictionaries, going back to the very beginning (almost) of the system.  They’re “official” in the sense that Gregg Publishing (and later McGraw-Hill) issued them, and they were compiled by expert shorthand writers.

      I have a 1906 Gregg dictionary, with a 1902 copyright.  I don’t know if there were any that appeared earlier than that.

      But the entries change depending on the version of Gregg.  So it’s important to identify which version you’re talking about.

      Some words, of course, were remarkably consistent across time.  “Attain” is one of those.  It’s the same in the 1906 dictionary as it is in the 1963 Diamond Jubilee edition that I use most often.



  4. Lots of good answers here.

    One thing to remember is that Gregg shorthand doesn’t aim to be a phonetic system like the IPA that exactly captures and records the sounds of the language.  Gregg’s goal was simply to create a practical system that would be relatively easy to learn, and would enable people to write as fast as possible.  That involved lots of compromises between “logical and consistent” and “functional and practical”.

    The “a” in “attain” and similar words goes back all the way to Pre-Anniversary.  It’s not a problem, but a feature . . .


Leave a Reply