Radiograms and Punctuation

The subject of using punctuation in a formal radiogram came up on the Ohio Single Sideband Net (OSSBN) a while back. It seems that not everyone understands exactly how to use punctuation in a formal NTS message.

In order to understand why the standard practices in NTS traffic handling are what they are, we need to understand why punctuation is used in the first place. Punctuation marks are used in written language in order to communicate certain qualities or nuances of the ideas being communicated from the writer to the reader. We use commas as idea separators. We use colons and semi-colons to denote lists. We use the period to separate ideas. We use punctuation to add context to the written word.

Formal message transmission, however, has different requirements than writing prose or poetry. The reason we pass formal message traffic in the NTS is to practice and develop a skill that may be necessary to use in an emergency. Often, this fundamental purpose is pushed to the background while we participate in and enjoy our nets. The primary purpose of formal message traffic is to get the thoughts and ideas accurately, completely, and unambiguously communicated from the sender to the receiver. We must accomplish this despite weak signals, lightning crashes, QRM, and many other distractions.

The next thing we need to consider is the mode of communication and how it affects communication needs. Formal message traffic is passed by CW, voice, and digital modes. I don’t participate in digital traffic handling so I won’t speak to their specific needs. I do participate in CW and voice nets at all levels of the NTS, from local to area nets, so I can speak to these from experience.

In the old days, message traffic and news was passed from shore stations to ships at sea by means of the Morse code (CW). These communications required that the most commonly used punctuation be used so Morse code signals exist for many punctuation marks. The code ‘dah dah dah di di dit’ is the code for a colon. The code ‘dah di di di di dah’ is an apostrophe.

In normal, every day CW conversations on the ham bands, CW ops rarely use punctuation other than period (di dah di dah di dah) and comma (dah dah di di dah dah) and slash (dah di di dah dit). We also use the equal sign (dah di di di dah) but most know it as BT. Also, in the days when hams were tested on CW, all the punctuation we had to know to pass the test were period, comma, and slant bar. The result of all this is that most CW ops do not know all the Morse code for punctuation symbols.

Voice communications is fundamentally different than CW communications. In voice communications, we can display nuance and context by changes in tone or by pausing for different amounts of time. Voice communicators don’t have the problem of learning punctuation codes like CW ops have.

If we look at the goal of NTS communications, that is, to communicate accurately, completely, and unambiguously, we need to eliminate things that get in the way and make our communication less prone to error. In the case of punctuation, the easiest way is to just not use the many punctuation marks in our messages and to not use any punctuation at all if we don’t absolutely need it. This is, essentially what the NTS recommends in their Message and Practices Guidelines (MPG) in appendix B to the Public Service Communications Manual (PSCM).

The MPG chapter that deals with the formal radiogram is chapter 1. This chapter gives specific instructions on what is, and is not, permissible in a radiogram.

The following is from the PSCM, Appendix B, Chapter 1:

It may seem that punctuation rules are complicated, but the basic rule is that no punctuation such as hyphens, commas, colons, periods, etc., are ever permitted anywhere in the Radiogram as symbols. Only capital letters, figures, and slashes are permitted. The substitutes “R”, “X”, and “DOT”, or spelled-out punctuation, are used in OP NOTES and the TEXT as noted. Even though the slash (“/”) is a permitted character in the radiogram, it should be avoided in the Preamble, Address, and Signature except slashes (“/”) after call signs in the Preamble, or slashes after call signs in the addressee line, or slashes separating characters in street addresses where normally required for postal use, or the slash in the group “C/O”.

You may use punctuation in the text part of a message or in an op note if needed to make the message text clearly understood. Any punctuation that is correct but not necessary should be avoided.

The slant bar (‘/’) is specifically allowed in a formal radiogram as mentioned above. This is easily handled in CW as all CW ops should know the code. In a voice net, it is voiced as ‘slash’, ‘stroke’, or ‘slant bar’.

In the text part of a radiogram, there are specific substitutions made for common punctuation. We use the capital letter ‘R’ as a substitution for the decimal point in a decimal fraction. If we want to say our temperature is 98.6F, we would use ’98R6F’. In a voice net, we would read it as “mixed group niner eight romeo six foxtrot”. We also substitute the letter X for a period to end a sentence. It is voiced as “initial x-ray” on a voice net.

Any other punctuation must be spelled out as a word. For example, my email address would be “WB8YLO ATSIGN ARRL DOT NET” rather than “”. Spelled out punctuation is counted as one group just like any other group in the message.

The bottom line is to use punctuation rarely and only if necessary to properly communicate the information. If you must use punctuation, don’t use the symbols (except the ‘/’) but, use the word spelled out.

All of this information (and much more) is available in the MPGs on the ARRL web site here. The PSCM and MPGs have recently been updated. I highly recommend all traffic handlers take a look at the new material.

CW Shorthand – Cut Numbers

Have you ever heard someone send a signal report of 5NN? Perhaps you knew it was the same as an RST of 599. Sending the letter ‘N’ for a figure ‘9’ is called sending a cut number. While the  N for 9 is the most common, there is a shortcut or “cut” number for each digit 0 through 9, except for 4 and 6. Another common use of cut numbers is sending a ‘T’ for a ‘0’ as in “am running 1TT watts” meaning 100 watts power.

Another place where cut numbers are common is in large cw contests such as the CQ WW DX contest. The contest exchange is RST and CQ zone number. A report of 599 in CQ zone 12 might be sent as “5NN AU”.

Here are the cut numbers:

Number         Normal Code           Cut Number         Result
  1        di dah dah dah dah      di dah                  A
  2        di di dah dah dah       di di dah               U
  3        di di di dah dah        di di di dah            V
  4        di di di di dah         di di di di dah         4
  5        di di di di dit         dit                     E
  6        dah di di di dit        dah di di di dit        6
  7        dah dah di di dit       dah dah dit             G
  8        dah dah dah di dit      dah di dit              D
  9        dah dah dah dah dit     dah dit                 N
  0        dah dah dah dah dah     dah                     T

CW Training Nets

For anyone interested in handling message traffic via cw, a slow speed cw training net is a very good place to start. These slow speed nets exist to help the new traffic handler to learn the ropes of message traffic handling at slower speeds than are typical for a section net or above. Most slow speed nets run at about ten to twelve words per minute but will slow down for you if you aren’t quite there yet.

I participate in the Ohio Slow Net – a slow speed cw traffic and training net that covers the state of Ohio. This is the slow speed net I’m most familiar with and will use it’s procedures as a model. Most slow speed training nets will be similar. In fact, the Ohio Slow Net (OSN) was modelled after the Maryland Slow Net and sounds quite similar.

So, what does a cw training net look like? Most nets in the National Traffic System run in a similar manner. First is the net callup followed by a net preamble that explains something about the net. This is followed by some instructions and the net control operator is identified. At this point, net members are invited to check into the net and list any traffic they have to pass. Traffic can be either for someone on this net or can be ‘through traffic’ destined for another net. The net control station then sees that the traffic is passed to the proper persons in an efficient manner. The net control may make announcements, stations may have words with each other, and all net business is taken care of. When the net’s business is complete, the net control thanks the net members and formally dismissed them from the net. The net control station may make one last call for checkins then closes the net. This is the general procedure for many traffic nets.

The following is an example of how a session of the slow net might run:



03        NCS:        QNA BN TX K

04        W8AA:    DE W8AA GE JOHN VOL BN TX QRU

05        NCS:        GE DAVE W8AA TU BN TX <AS>

06        NCS:        OSN OSN QNI K

07        K8BB:      B

08        NCS:        B

09        K8BB:      DE K8BB GE JOHN QTC K8DD 1 K

10        NCS:         K8BB GE BOB R <AS>

11        N8CC:      C

12        NCS:         C

13        N8CC:      DE N8CC GE JOHN QRU

14        NCS:         GE TOM N8CC <AS>

15        K8DD:       K

16         NCS:         K

17         K8DD:       DE K8DD GE JOHN QRU

18          NCS:         GE JIM K8DD QNU <AS>

19          NCS:         OSN OSN QNI K

20          NCS:         K8DD

21          K8DD:       HR

22           NCS:         ES K8BB

23           K8BB:       HR

24           NCS:         UP 3 UP 3 FOR QTC K8DD 1 THEN BOTH QNX WID TNX K

25           K8DD:       G 73 DE K8DD

26            K8BB:       G 73 DE K8BB

27            NCS:          OSN OSN QNI K

28            NCS:          W8AA

29            W8AA:       HR

30            NCS:           TU BN TX ES QNI NW QRU QNX 73 K

31            W8AA:        GE ES 73 DE W8AA

32            NCS:           N8CC

33            N8CC:        HR

34            NCS:           TNX QNI NW QRU QNX 73 K

35            N8CC:         GE JOHN 73 DE N8CC

36             NCS:          OSN OSN LAST CALL QNI K

37             NCS:          OSN OSN NW QNF DE W8NCS

Wow! If you are new to the world of cw and traffic nets, it may look awfully confusing. There is, however, a lot of business going on here. In line 01, the net control station (NCS) asks if the frequency is in use [QRL?]. Not hearing any reply, NCS continues with the net call up [CQ OSN CQ OSN]. NCS follows the callup with the net preamble [OHIO SLOW NET PART OF NTS OHIO SECTION  ALL ARE WELCOME].

NCS continues with line 02. After another net call up [OSN OSN], NCS sends the Q-Signal QND. This tells the net that it is a formal, directed net and all communications must go through the net control. This is followed by a request to zero-beat your signal with the net control’s signal so all net members are on the same frequency [PSE QNZ VVV VVV]. The QNN signal tells all the net members who the net contol station is [QNN W8NCS JOHN IN DAYTON]. Even though this is a formal net, we can all be friendly and on a first name basis.

In line 03, the NCS asks for the Buckeye Net (BN) transmit liaison station to check in. In the OSN, the Buckeye Net transmit liaison is a volunteer. In higher level nets, the liaison stations are assigned. The Q-Signal QNA asks stations to check in in a prearranged order. Since the OSN is a training net, most of the traffic goes either to the net manager or to the Buckeye Net for eventual distribution elsewhere.

In line 04, station W8AA identifies itself [DE W8AA], says good evening to the NCS [GE JOHN], volunteers to be the Buckeye Net transmit liaison [VOL BN TX], and finally says he has no message traffic [QRU]. You are probably getting the idea that abbreviations are important on a cw net – and you would be right!

In line 05, the NCS welcomes W8AA to the net, thanks him for volunteering, and asks him to stand by using the prosign <AS>. In line 06, the NCS continues and asks for any checkins [QNI].

In line 07, someone transmits the letter B. This is called a ‘sine’. A sine is just a shorthand way to get the NCS’s attention in a quick and easy way. The NCS sends the same sine back in line 08. This is the NCS’s way of letting the sender know he heard him and to go ahead and check in.

In line 08, the station K8BB identifies himself [DE K8BB] Note – the DE is the French word for ‘from’. Ham radio is a truly international hobby. He then says hello [GE JOHN]. The GE is short for good evening. Then he tells net control that he has one piece of formal message traffic for station K8DD [QTC K8DD 1]. He finishes by sending ‘K’ which is shorthand for “I’m done talking, it’s your turn to talk”. In line 10, the NCS acknowledges K8BB [K8BB GE BOB], acknowledges Bob’s traffic [R], and asks Bob to stand bu [<AS>].

In lines 11 – 14, N8CC checks in and tells the NCS that he does not have any formal message traffic [QRU], and is acknowledged by the NCS.

In lines 15 – 17, K8DD checks in and tells the NCS that he has no formal traffic. In line 18, the NCS checks him in and tells him that the net has traffic for him [QNU] and that he should stand by.

In line 19, NCS asks for more checkins [QNI].

Upon hearing no more checkins, the NCS , in line 20, calls K8DD, who has a message waiting for him and waits for K8DD to answer. In line 21, K8DD answers  “I’m here” [HR].

In line 22 the NCS checks that K8BB, who has a message for K8DD, is still here [ES K8BB]. Note – the ‘ES’ is French for “and”. K8BB is still here so in line 23 he tells the NCS that he’s here [HR].

Line 24 is a big one with lot’s of information. In this line, the NCS tells these two stations to move up 3 kilohertz [UP 3 UP 3] and that they should pass the one piece of traffic k8DD [FOR QTC K8DD 1] and when they are finished with the traffic, they should both check out of the net [THEN BOTH QNX] and to go with the thanks of the NCS [WID TNX].

In line 25, K8DD, the receiving station tells the NCS that he is going to the new frequency [G] then says a friendly goodbye to the NCS [73] then identifies his station because this is his last transmission on this net [DE K8DD]. In line 26, K8BB does the same as K8DD and they both move up 3KHz to pass the traffic, say thanks and goodbybe to each other , then go on about their business. When they finish the traffic, they are out of the net.

In line 27, the net control station asks if there are any more checkins [QNI].

In line 28, the NCS calls N8AA. N8AA answers in line 29.

In line 30, the NCS thanks N8AA for volunteering to be the Buckeye Net Transmit liaison [TU BN TX] and for checking in [ES QNI] and that now the net has nothing more for him [NW QRU], that he is checked out [QNX], and best wishes [73]. The NCS is done talking to N8AA [K].

In line 31, N8AA replies “good evening and best wishes” [GE ES 73], then identifies [DE W8AA], and is out of the net.

In lines 33-35, N8CC is checked out.

In line 36, the NCS makes a last call for check ins and in line 37, the NCS tells everyone that the net is no longer formal and directed but is now free for anyone to jump in and talk [QNF] and identifies his station since this was his last transmission.

Whew! Even a net without a lot of traffic has a lot going on. As the amount of traffic increases and the number of places the traffic is going to increases, the net can become somewhat more complicated. People can be sent up or down to several different frequencies, there can be liaisons to several nets, some members may go and be checked out while some may be sent off frequency, come back, and be sent to another frequency!.

At any rate, most slow speed cw training nets have little traffic and are not so complicated. Mistakes are made and corrected. Everyone learns something and gets to be better traffic handlers. Most of the participants on the Ohio Slow Net are Extra Class amateurs with many years of experience. Most of them are active on local FM voice nets, on the voice and CW section nets, and/or the Eighth Region Net and Eastern Area Net. Although most aren’t beginners, they hang around because they are interested in training newcomers and in encouraging them to continue improving their traffic handling skills. Besides, we all have fun and enjoy each other’s company.

If you have any interest in CW traffic handling, check out your Slow Speed CW training net. It should be a good experience.


Introduction To The International Morse Code

This article introduces the International Morse Code as used by radio amateurs. The formal document that describes the International Morse Code for use in radio telecommunication is ITU Recommendation ITU-R M.1677-1 (10/2009). While there are extensions to handle languages other than English, we will be concerned with the English language only in this article.

The International Morse Code is an aural language. It is important to keep this in mind, especially when trying to learn the code. Don’t try to memorize dots and dashes. That is guaranteed to slow you down. Instead, say the dits and dahs out loud. Better yet, listen to well formed code being sent. The object of learning the code is to visualize a particular character when you hear a particular sound sequence.

It is also important to realize that the code is made up of two sounds, dits and dahs. it is also made up of the absence of sound, that is, the spaces between dits and dahs. If you ignore the spacing between dits and dahs, you get a very run-on sounding code that is difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately, this is all too common on the air.

The length of the dit and dah sounds and the various spacings are all based on the length of the dit. If the dit sound has a length of one, then the dah will have a length of three dits. Again, with the dit as length of one, the spacing between the dits and dahs within the same character is the same length of one. The space between characters in the same word/group is the length of three dits. The space between words or groups is seven dits.

The ITU Recommendation specifies letters, figures, punctuation, and special signals. This article shows only the first three items. The special signals will be explained in a separate article. There is more information about the sending and receiving of the code contained in the ITU Recommendation. You can find your own copy of the recommendation at .

   The International Morse Code

Char        Pronunciation

A           di-dah
B           dah-di-di-dit
C           dah-di-dah-dit
D           dah-di-dit
E           dit
F           di-di-dah-dit
G           dah-dah-dit
H           di-di-di-dit
I           di-dit
J           di-dah-dah-dah
K           dah-di-dah
L           di-dah-di-dit
M           dah-dah
N           dah-dit
O           dah-dah-dah
P           di-dah-dah-dit
Q           dah-dah-di-dah
R           di-dah-dit
S           di-di-dit
T           dah
U           di-di-dah
V           di-di-di-dah
W           di-dah-dah
X           dah-di-di-dah
Y           dah-di-dah-dah
Z           dah-dah-di-dit

1           di-dah-dah-dah-dah
2           di-di-dah-dah-dah
3           di-di-di-dah-dah
4           di-di-di-di-dah
5           di-di-di-di-dit
6           dah-di-di-di-dit
7           dah-dah-di-di-dit
8           dah-dah-dah-di-dit
9           dah-dah-dah-dah-dit
0           dah-dah-dah-dah-dah

.           di-dah-di-dah-di-dah       (period)
,           dah-dah-di-di-dah-dah      (comma)
:           dah-dah-dah-di-di-dit      (colon)
?           di-di-dah-dah-di-dit       (question mark)
'           di-dah-dah-dah-dah-dit     (apostrophe)
-           dah-di-di-di-di-dah        (hyphen)
/           dah-di-di-dah-dit          (slant bar)
(           dah-di-dah-dah-dit         (open paren)
)           dah-di-dah-dah-di-dah      (close paren)
"           di-dah-di-di-dah-dit       (quote)
=           dah-di-di-di-dah           (equal sign)
;           dah-di-dah-di-dah-dit      (semicolon)
!           dah-di-dah-di-dah-dah      (exclamation)
+           di-dah-di-dah-dit          (plus sign)
@           di-dah-dah-di-dah-dit      (at sign)