The Perils of Historical Shorthand

Learned a good lesson the other day.

I’ve long-used shorthand, for noting the concept of “one year or the next year.” For example, writing “the fire truck was a 1950 or 1951 Ford” as “the fire truck was a 1950-51 Ford.”

No problem, right? But watch what happens here:

  • 1950 – The fire department was organized.
  • 1951 – The fire engine was purchased.
  • 1951-52 – The fire station was built.

The third line can mean either (a.) “the fire station was built in 1951 or 1952” or (b.) “the fire station was built during the years 1951 and 1952.” And that, my friends, is a problem.

Interpret Carefully – Be Explicit

As a self-taught historian, I’ve been making things up as I go, and learning best practices by the examples of others, and my own experiences along the way.

One of the most important points is interpretation. Assume nothing. Interpret carefully. And, as I learned this in this example, explicitly state what you are stating, versus relying upon your own shorthand.

In the future I will be paying much closer attention to this.

Do I need to go back and revise all manner of materials? Probably not. It’s too time prohibitive to begin with. 

In some cases, my shorthand works fine. If I’m listing, say, the model years of vehicles, saying 1950-51 works fine. But in a narrative context, as in the second example, it’s a potential point of confusion.

Lesson learned.

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