Dump cursive, if you must. But learn to read script!

scriptFor five centuries, school students have learned to write in longhand about two years after they learn the alphabet. Prior to the introduction of the ballpoint pen in 1945, as World War II was ending, they also endured endless drills to refine the polish and pizzazz of their script. Learning cursive was taken for granted and good penmanship followed closely behind.

Penmanship doesn’t just make handwriting legible. It elevates it to an expressive art. If you have ever held an old letter or a high school yearbook, then you are nodding in agreement. There are no scribbles. Every thought is written with style and class.

Penmanship like this requires more than skill. it requires a quill or a fountain pen.

But after the war, schools largely abandoned the effort to write legibly. After 1950, well formed script was something that circled the classroom ceiling. (For some reason, every teacher staples it up there). The banners of our childhood gave a focal point to many childhood daydreams. We glanced upward and learned that there are two ways to draw a lower case ‘r’ and an upper case “Q”. Of course, no one that we knew had ever written a “Q” like the number 2. But there it was for all to see.

Kids today are no longer expected to write beautifully nor even legibly. With the emergence of keyboards, we are in the habit of mixing printed characters with an occasional scribble. The handwriting of doctors has long been the butt of jokes. In the end, we hope that our teachers, employers or patients grade us on content and not on handwriting.

A few years ago, journalists lamented the death of penmanship. But those news stories were just fillers. After all, in this century, few people write with the style and panache of John Hancock. Our new Treasury secretary can’t even sign his name. He draws a series of four circular loops.

penmanship-01It wasn’t always like this, of course. Look at the inscription in an old book or at the notes written into a yearbook. You will find that little Mary had more style and class than a modern day calligrapher. Based on the letters and old books that I come across, it appears that the general population lost this ability sometime between the World Wars.

It’s a good bet that the loss of well-formed handwriting has something to do with the ballpoint pen. A great deal of the style and flair in John Hancock’s signature requires a quill pen or at least a fountain pen with a nib that can be drawn across the page at an angle and broadened as the user applies pressure. The flow of ink is also controlled by pressure and speed.

Penmanship vs. Cursive

Whatever the reason, the demise of penmanship doesn’t seem like a big deal, because it predates most of us. But now, we are faced with the demise of cursive altogether. Is that a problem?

Perhaps learning to write in cursive is no more necessary than learning to calculate with a slide rule—just another anachronism of concern to only historians and nostalgia buffs. I stopped using a slide rule when the Bomar calculator dropped below $100. That was 1974. By the mid 1980s, my high school physics teacher, Mr. Overboe, abandoned his slide rule, even though he still sported a bow-tie and horned-rim spectacles.

Jacob Lew-01

What does that squiggle say? Treasury
Secretary, Jacob Lew, is no John Hancock!

Throughout America and in any region using a Roman alphabet, school boards and state curriculum committees are tossing cursive to the wind. Time that was spent learning how to write is now spent learning keyboard skills.

So far, this seems fair. I will not give up handwriting, but I accept that children a bit younger than my 6th grade daughter may never master that skill. After all, the purpose of writing without lifting pen is to speed the communication process. And since we eventually need to get our thoughts into a computer or a smart phone, it is no longer useful. Right? But wait! When you change a tradition, there is a little problem that tends to bite us in the a*s. I call it Ellery’s law of unintended consequences

This weekend, I went to Aunt Suzi’s house for Mother’s Day brunch and I learned something that shocked me. It even shocked my 12 year old daughter who agrees that handwriting is not a critical skill. Suzi’s nephew, Timothy is fifteen—3 years older than my daughter. Timothy is very bright and attends a good school. Apparently, in his district, cursive was abandoned years ago. No problem so far…But during a discussion about the merits of keyboard vs. handwriting, Timothy informed us that he not only lacks the skill to write longhand, he can’t read it either!

Come again? Whaahzat?! Timothy can’t read handwriting?!!

continue below…

fountain_penI dismissed the need for good penmanship long ago. After college, I lost the ability to write with beauty or flair. Eventually, I lost the ability to write in cursive. My right hand can not guide a pen any better than the left. (Caveat: I can still write my signature!). The news that schools across the land are are dropping cursive barely registered. It was a dinner table discussion for just one meal.

Personally, I’m glad that I once knew how to write longhand, but perhaps the fun and pride that I feel is based on nostalgia and a resistance to change. This is the Internet Age. It’s time to make way for the keyboard, gestures and voice input. I can certainly live with that.

Or so I thought. But wait! What about reading someone else’s writing?…

When people talk about cutting the unit where children learn to read history from the pen of Benjamin Franklin or William Shakespeare, I am really beginning to fear for our future. I didn’t stop to think that this new world order means that kids turn into adults without even figuring out how to read cursive. That’s ludicrous!

We’re not talking about ancient Sanskrit. We’re talking about The Constitution, The Gettysburg Address, Ronald Reagan’s Diary, and Grandma’s next birthday card. Who the heck decided that our children only need to read a text message or an email? (They certainly don’t read newspapers).

I cannot accept this. Imagine leaving a note for your executive assistant, “Tell the customer that I will call in an hour”, only to learn that it is as cryptic as if it were in a foreign language or a secret code. If that same assistant tells me that I should have texted him or left a voice message, he will be looking for new job. Are we prepared to lose written language in a single generation? Really prepared?!! What about you? Do you care?



21 thoughts on “Dump cursive, if you must. But learn to read script!

  1. Cursive is an interesting thing. My 8-year-old loves to write in cursive, and my 3½-year-old looks forward to learning it. We write letters (actual, physical letters) and cards to friends and relatives, and knowing cursive is a very nice thing for us. Beyond that, there’s research that shows that our brains work differently when we write cursive than when typing at a keyboard. I value challenging the mind to work in all different ways, regardless of any direct practical outcome of that particular way of thinking, which is a luxury the schools don’t have (or don’t feel they have. Apparently schools in Finland have a dramatically different idea about what’s important for a child’s intellectual development).

    I had a conversation with a woman from Barnstable a few months ago who explained that her children’s teachers don’t teach them to read an analog clock anymore because they only need to read digital time. The teacher likened it to learning cursive; “It’s just not useful anymore,” she said. I think that this is even farther off the mark than dismissing cursive. Analog clocks are everywhere. Additionally, learning to read the face of a clock helps children learn their “times-5s,” clock arithmetic, and helps them get a spacial sense of the passage of time (There I go, with that “Thinking in different ways is good” stuff again).

    Basically, I’m not really into the idea of limiting what a child learns on the basis of utility. I also think it’s dangerous and short-sighted to tell a child, “No, you don’t need to know that. There’s no practical application for it.” Learning is good for learning’s sake. Or at least that’s my philosophy. Who knows what insights might come from a particular skill or type of knowledge?

  2. Digital clocks are nice in the corner of your TV screen when drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. But who in their right mind claims that we don’t need to read clocks any more? Sheeesh!

    There is a big clock on my City Hall, the college library tower, and on Big Ben in London. They are round and they have hands. Can you imagine a middle school student asking you to translate the meaning for her?!

    And, as CJ points out so eloquently, learning to tell time from a real clock is not just about existing clocks or nostalgia. It helps a child to better understand the very nature of time. The fact may be anecdotal, but it is certainly indisputable.

    Finally, there is my personal pet peeve about large digital clocks: They change digits suddenly. If I were a concert pianist, a heart surgeon, or even someone reading a good book, I certainly don’t want digits flipping in my peripheral vision. During periods of intense concentration, a hand smoothly sweeping is OK. But not image swaps. I suspect that this is one reason that large, room clocks are rarely digital.

  3. Cursive’s cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, as did commenter “C.J.”:
    “… there’s research that shows that our brains work differently when we write cursive than when typing at a keyboard.”

    C.J., please cite your source. Here’s why I ask —
    Without exception, when those who claim research have been asked to provide citations or text for the studies they have in mind, those studies consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    It was interesting to see your reference to Finland (consistently the top scorer in international tests). In 1991, Finland discontinued cursive: adopting for its schools — and officially reaffirming in 2000 — a handwriting style with print-like letter formations, in which only the easiest joins are made: so that some letters and combinations of letters aren’t joined. (Source on request)

    Do the Finns know something? Here in the USA, too, research shows that the fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

    Reading cursive is vital, and I am glad that people are concerned. But, even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce.

    If the only way to read a letter style involved having to learn to write the same way, we would have to learn to read and write all over again whenever somebody invented a new font. (And how would we read those portions of the Declaration and the Constitution which were penned, not even in cursive, but in elaborate “Olde Englishe” Blackletter? Or are the enthusiasts of cursive out to require that everyone learn to read and write that style, too?)

    Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes, even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. Why not teach children to read cursive, along with teaching other vital skills, including a handwriting style typical of effective handwriters?

    Adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?

    Someone, doubtless, will be wondering what happens to signatures. Hear a plain truth: in state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

    SOURCES: Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    and the World Handwriting Contest

  4. Kate, you said:

    “Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating
    stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.”

    I haven’t come across any crinolines lately (a petticoat of haircloth or other stiff material, worn under a full skirt to keep it belled out), but I just love witticisms that use simile to get across a contrarian opinion (whether one agrees or disagrees with the opinion expressed).

    My favorite example from contemporary media: During the final presidential debate between Barak Obama and Mitt Romney, the president was criticized for overseeing the reduction of the US Navy to the smallest number of ships since 1916.

    In response, Obama insisted the strength of a Navy is “not a game of Battleship where you simply count up the boats [to determine supremacy]”. Of course, with that line, he already had a Zinger with a capital ‘Z’. But, then he ratcheted it up a notch by pointing out that the United States “also has fewer horses and bayonettes” then we had back then. This drives home the point that improving the numbers of an outdated technology is not necessarily an improvement.

    My concern was for schools teaching kids to at least read cursive. But setting aside my admiration for your clever witticism, I lean toward CJ’s view. If my daughter had not practiced handwriting in third grade (just 3 years ago), I would be terribly disappointed. In fact, I would have added remedial intervention at the dinner table. Cursive may go the way of the crinoline (I love this new word!), but in my family, that day is still a generation or two away.

  5. I, too, would be disappointed (and outraged) if children forever ceased to practice handwriting. But why must the style of the hwg practiced be cursive? At least one very graceful and practical style — the italic style — isn’t “cursive” as most Americans define that term (it doesn’t instill ceaseless joining, and so forth) — but I cannot imagine that you would be disappointed if this (seen at the following links) were what your children practiced in school, at the dinner table, and wherever else they write by hand:

  6. I looked at the italic/connected writing samples on the home pages of these sites. I agree that they look clean and legible. Moreover, the style is pleasing to the eye.

    But, while italic writing and block calligraphy seem “script-like” at first glance, neither is cursive. They are only very neat, stylized printing with pretty flourishes.

    In response to your question, No…This doesn’t satisfy the requirement that my daughter learn to write (and that all educated students learn to read handwriting from any period in the past 3 centuries. It has not change much at all!). Even though I have always been jealous impressed by those who can write like this, it is no substitute for learning to write in cursive.

    Kate, I trust your sources and I cannot refute the research. In fact, we both agree that raising scholars who will be unable to read recent historical documents from the source is unacceptable. You and I differ only on the importance of teaching children to write as well as read. You seem to feel that it is unimportant. I agree that it is reasonable to expect this skill will die, but I just don’t want it to die amongst my crowd for another 50 years. I have a hunch — but I am not certain — that my feelings on the issue are driven from a practical and urgent need, rather than just nostalgia or a resistance to change.

    Incidentally, my father taught me to communicate in Morse Code and with surprising speed. It is an inefficient system of dots and dashes. I am glad that I learned telegraphy and it actually came in very useful recently (a rather odd story for another time). Yet, I have no emotional attachment to the art and I don’t expect my daughter to learn it. My Point: I am not guided by nostalgia. Writing in cursive is different.

  7. An interesting thing about cursive, of course, is that italic was one of the earliest styles ever to be called “cursive” (or the equivalent term in other languages), since italic was the style of the first published textbooks on handwriting in our alphabet.

    The people who gave italic that name “cursive” (sometime before the Baroque era began evolving — or devolving — italic into the ceaselessly joined cursive styles more familiar today) were likely relying on the fact that the word “cursive” derives from a Latin term meaning “running” or “flowing” — something that italic certainly is, in my experience as so done who has written it and taught it for 26 years.
    It is worth remembering that comparative speed/legibility tests of italic handwriters versus conventional cursive handwriters of equal legibility and experience (sources on request) consistently show a substantial speed advantage for italic handwriting over conventional cursive handwriting.

    I am struggling to understand why you (apparently) regard italic handwriting as not writing.
    Is that indeed what you believe? So I gather from your perplexing statement that you would regard writers of italic as not fulfilling a “requirement to write,” even though you are “jealous” of such persons’ competence. (As an italic handwriter myself, I find that rationalization as marvelously, self-contradictingly bemusing as if you had berated as “nudists” those who don’t dress for the nineteenth century — then admitted that you envied their wardrobes.)

    Thank you, though, for agreeing that you “cannot refute the research,” and that you draw your conclusions instead from a “hunch” and “feelings.” I am not sure why you regard the fact that you lack an emotional attachment to Morse code as proof that your emotional attachment to joining all the letters is nostalgia-free. Nobody, after all, is nostalgic for absolutely _all_ aspects of a bygone era.

    Re not wanting cursive to “die amongst [your] crowd for another 50 years” — all you have to do, to ensure that your friends and neighbors keep on having to read cursive, is to stay alive for that long and to write them letters by hand. (I do not know of any way, however, to ensure that their replies — or anyone’s — will be in your favorite style of handwriting.)

  8. Kate-


    While this is not the original source (I cannot remember where I first learned about the difference in brain function when writing cursive), it is a recent source to support my claim. I’m not 100% on board with Psychology Today as a source, but there are source citations within the text of the article—particularly this one:

    Berninger, V. [Summit video] [Slide presentation]
    “Evidence-Based, Developmentally Appropriate Writing Skills K–5: Teaching the Orthographic Loop of Working Memory to Write Letters So Developing Writers Can Spell Words and Express Ideas.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.)

    -C.J. (no quotation marks necessary, thanks!)

  9. Thanks for the links, with which I’m familiar (as you’ll note, e.g., from the fact that I’d commented within the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY thread, some time ago). It’s been notable to me, as I’ve explored those links and have read the various other items that they (in turn) quote or link to, that:

    • The studies cited by PSYCHOLOGY TODAY turned out to be about handwriting generally (not specifically about cursive) despite the title assigned by the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY columnist (For example, one study that they’re citing as support for cursive didn’t involve cursive — it was a study of print-writing versus keyboarding, and the subjects were kindergarteners)

    • When I contacted the researchers who did those studies, to ask whether the studies supported cursive as the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY headline had averred, the researchers responded that, no, their work was turning out to support the use handwriting of any variety (including print-writing) over exclusively keyboarding, but that their work was finding NO advantage for cursive over other forms of handwriting

    • Several of the researchers, and their publishers or other representatives, took the time to inform me that they have been becoming quite annoyed (and, in at least one case, are or were contemplating legal action) against media sources that have (e.g.) misquoted research as supporting cursive when the research did not do so

    • Numerous supporters of cursive (some were teachers, some were parents, several were legislators who are or have been urging their state governments to require that students in their state write in cursive) wrote to me or phoned me, after reading comments of mine noting and documenting the misrepresentations, to state that they believed that the research needed to be represented as supporting cursive whether the research had in fact supported cursive or not. Their explanation (of why they believed that it was essential to describe the research as supporting cursive, irrespective of the actual findings — which they sometimes freely admitted were unsupportive of cursive — was that only in this way could people be persuaded that cursive ought to survive.

    Here are links to news coverage (and other coverage) of events surrounding a state-level legislative campaign for cursive in North Carolina.

    C.J. and all:
    I’d value your comments on the level of ethics and integrity displayed by those involved in that effort. e.g. In their use of research. Similar campaigns are, or have been, in progress in other states. Some have been successful; others have not been.

    • Kate-

      I think the issue of whether cursive is useful/valuable is separate from whether there should be a mandate to teach it in the schools. As a homeschooler, I don’t really have a horse in this race, and I actually don’t really understand the rancor on both sides of the issue. It’s impossible to offer instruction in everything during a school day, so some things need to be dropped. I’d rather see cursive go away than music or art (although one could make a case for instruction in cursive being part of an art curriculum).

      In my family, we’ve adopted instruction in cursive for largely pragmatic reasons: My eight-year-old finds that she can write more quickly when she writes in cursive than when she prints. She also likes cursive because it’s “pretty.”

      As a writer, I find that I go through different thought processes when I write by hand than when I type. As a result, I want to encourage anything that facilitates my daughter’s practice of keeping a hand-written journal. Since she can write faster using cursive, this helps her to keep her journal.

      I’ve taken both keyboarding classes and instruction in penmanship. Unless I’m writing a letter to my aunt or my grandma, I use a hybrid approach because, as you note, it’s faster (for me) than cursive. But I appreciate that I have the practice necessary to write “prettily” when the situation calls for it. I fully expect that my daughter will eventually adopt a hybrid approach, but I do think that studying how to form the letters is improving her fine motor skills. That’s not based on research, but just on my observation of my child.


  10. Thanks, C. J., for your considered reply. I’d never tell my one who enjoyed cursive (and who wrote it well) to stop writing it! One of my concerns about a cursive mandate (whether governmental or school-wide or class-wide) is in large part that it leads to a “cursive or nothing” mind-set: sacrificing the many students for whom a connect-everything requirement makes handwritten communication depends on a particular level of fine-motor adeptness that they will not, realistically, reach and maintain (even if they liked the way it looked — as your daughter does, but as many other people do not). Even if cursive were always easily learned _and_ were alwys unproblematically maintained by people who were average in their fine-motor ability and in their power to improve that (which I see no evidence is the case) — 50% of people, by definition are below average. If more than 50% of us are to be competent in the handwritten word, gearing the demands to the “average” may not cut it.

    Thanks, by the way, for your honesty in admitting that you are predominantly a hybrid handwriter and that your daughter is likely to be one too.

    To add a lighter note to the discussion — and to show that distaste for cursive is no purely 21st-century phenomenon — here’s a link to a delightful account of some early-20th-century schoolchildren’s rebellion against cursive handwriting: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=
    (Title: “Curse You, Palmer!”)

    The author — aeronautics/computer engineer Jackson Granholm — is now 91 (and easily Google-able).Given that the article states that he entered the above-described rebellion when he was in the fifth grade, this would have been in 1933: give or take a year.

  11. Re:

    “For five centuries, school students have learned to write in longhand … ”

    What they learned five hundred years ago wasn’t like anything called “longhand” today — which had yet to be invented. The typical school handwriting of five hundred years ago was a semi-joined and decidedly “print-like” style. You can see it today at , where you can download (free) a reproduction (with translation) of the first-ever published textbook on handwriting.
    (First published in 1522)

    “about two years after they learn the alphabet.” —
    Also incorrect. The custom of teaching two handwriting styles, about two years apart, is a twentieth-century invention. Before that time, what children were taught to write — from the very first day of their education — was whatever handwriting style would be expected of them as adults.
    Supposing that children half a millennium ago were taught the same things, in the same way, as children today is as baseless, unthinking, and uninformed as supposing that children half a millennium ago must have been written with ball-point pens when not using computers and cell-phones.

    Re the Berninger paper you cite: Dr. Berninger correctly notes that the question of cursive’s importance “remains unresolved.” She is grossly incorrect in attributing cursive’s invention to the 19th century: most of the Declaration of Independence, after all, is written in cursive. (If a person of her intelligence and education truly believes that 1776 is a date in the 19th century, this is a problem that’s unlikely to be resolved by attention to handwriting or devotion to a particular style of handwriting.)
    Further, Berninger’s assertion that being required to use two handwriting styles is the equivalent of being multilingual (or is otherwise useful) appears to be merely that: an assertion. She gives no research to support that particular statement of hers, and in fact she is the co-author of published research (which I have cited earlier in this thread) showing that the fastest and most legible handwriters do not write in cursive.
    Her assumption that writing two handwritings (print and cursive) must be a great boon for children is difficult to maintain, given the fact that the top scorer academically among the world’s nations (Finland) teaches its schoolchildren only one style of handwriting — and that style is neither print-writing nor “cursive [which] links all letters within a word … ” (At most, it’s semi-joined — and the letters’ shapes remain their print-like selves whether they’re joined or not.) styles of this sort, in fact, are rather more common among academically high-scoring countries than among the others — in the academically lower-scoring countries, in fact, print-then-cursive styles are a very frequent choice. I’d be happy to confirm this by going through international reports of different countries’ academic standing, although this may make tedious reading for a blog-comment. It is ever so much more pleasant, after all, to be reassuringly misinformed that the way in which one was taught as a child must, oh-so-fortunately, be the absolute best … )

  12. I am becoming more fascinated each day with the history of writing in script.

    Kate’s link is a gem! It leads to the download of a book, Operina, written in the hand of Ludovico Vincentino, also known as Arrighi. He was a copyist, papal scribe and publisher. It is altogether interesting that the author calls his lettering “chancery”, because today, he would be known foremost as a typeographer.*

    Vincentino collaborated with a renown woodcutter. Together, they cut each page into separate blocks of wood.†

    Vincentino’s chancery script is beautiful. It dances off the page like a Gutenberg Bible, an original Aesop’s fable, or a hand scribed Torah. Perhaps, I can put an end to one key part of our debate (it is a friendly debate, is it not?)… It clearly blurs the line between printing in block letters, writing in italics, and writing in cursive. In my opinion, it is all three at once. It is stunning to think that anyone could write like this without moveable type or a modern machine.

    As Vicentino models lower case letters (take, for example, page 23), he sets forth various quotations:

    • Glory is not achieved by setting out, but at the finish
    • That is the birth of honor, true and perfect
    • Why enter the field of battle, and then flee?

    This bears a striking resemblance to needlepoint samplers of the 17th to early 20th century. In both Great Britain and in USA, preteen girls would demonstrate proficiency in sewing, spelling and literature by stitching the alphabet (sometimes in several typefaces) and then filling the space with biblical quotes or nursery rhymes.‡

    Although our discussion has but 3 contributors, this post is becoming popular with dozens of Blog visitors (a dozen subscribe to the replies and return frequently, many associated with .edu domains). Please continue to add relevant citations, just as you both have contributed today. Keep the feedback coming, but let us please subdue emotion. We share a common interest and fascination for written language, and in my opinion, our differences on the educational issue are not so far apart.

    * According to Wikipedia, the word “typeographer” is commonly misapplied to a type designer. There may be merit to this position, because the word has alternate meanings. But Merriam-Webster and many independent professional typeographers seem to accept the word as a synonym for type designer).

    † M.C. Escher cut surreal worlds into wood filled with interlocking fish, horses, bugs and soldiers. But Escher is almost a contemporary. Woodcutting in the 16th century was not easier, but it is inspiring to consider the ratio of patience & skill –vs– the tiny potential audience. Wood blocks produce a limited number of impressions and readership was further limited by distribution and education.

    This blog, on the other hand, takes very little effort, and with effectively no distribution logistics, it has the potential to reach a virtually unlimited audience now or in the future. And I haven’t formed a single character by hand. They don’t even exist; just electrons and photons sliding about the ether and into our brains.

    ‡ My mother collected framed needlepoint samplers. Many included the creator’s name, age and the date (sewn by Mary Johnson, age 16, year of our Lord, 1723). But often the last to digits of the year were ripped from the fabric. Apparently, as the girl grew to be a wife and mother, she didn’t wish to display her age to each house guest.

  13. Thanks, Ellery — and indeed I heartily wish to keep this discussion friendly. It is difficult, at times, for me to keep the debate as good-natured as both you and I would like it — bit the fact that you plainly “get” so much of what I’m striving to convey is an immeasurable help here.

    Re your wonderment that “anyone could write like this” without movable type or its successors — Arrighi himself thought that the available graphics technology (woodblock printing) “cannot fully represent the living hand,” and he was probably right: bits of his handwriting have turned up, now and then (on Papal records and such) and they are actually even _better_ than his woodcut-work: the curves and other directional changes are a bit smoother.
    Arrighi would have felt flattered and surprised, I imagine, to think that people almost 500 years after him were ooh-ing and aah-ing over a mere woodcut _approximation_ of his handwriting. (And just imagine how he himself would have ooh-ed and aah-ed if he could have had the opportunity to print out his handwriting from a scanner instead of cutting letters into wood … )

    Hmmm … given that it _is_ almost 500 years since he published (1522), I wonder if those of us who love handwriting in _any_ form could plan ahead to celebrate 2022 worldwide as the half-millennium anniversary (or would that be “quincentennial”?) of the first handwriting textbook published in our alphabet? (I specify “in our alphabet” because of course woodblock printing goes back much further in China, Japan, and Korea.)
    There is historical precedent for national/regional, if not global, celebrations of the alphabet and handwriting. For example, the 24th of May (just ended as I write this) has long been celebrated in the Slavic nations as “Cyrillic Alphabet Day” because it was (and presumably still is) the feast-day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who invented that script. (One consequence of its being designated “Cyrillic Alphabet Day” was that there it was celebrated even under Communism: typographer Edward Rondthaler’s autobiography, A LIFE WITH LETTERS, includes his Stalinist-era snapshots of the day’s parades in Moscow that year — complete with huge banners which, unexpectedly for Soviet parades, in fact proved to depict the two saints rather than Marx and Lenin. Other events of the date did, and do, include calligraphic exhibitions, literary readings, and — predictably — handwriting contests.)

  14. Actually, italic’s existance is closer to 600 years. If you look at the handwriting of Niccolo Niccoli, 1364-1437, you will see an italic hand that is not so carefully crafted as Arrighi’s, but to my eye is pleasing for the obvious rapidity, and legibility. Off and on through the centuries cursive italic has been popular, often with the upper classes; see Elisabeth I of England for example. I’ll not go into history more than that, but simply state that there must be a reason why the method has lasted for 600 years.

    In my teaching experience, the fact that one lifts the pen occasionally sustains legibility best at speed. It is not really a lift, more like a slight drift, and definitely not an interruption to the flow.

  15. I am a frequent reader of AWildDuck and an occasional comment queen.
    Here is a related item that made me think back to Ellery’s article on cursive instruction.

    This week, The Wall Street Journal published the lament of high school junior, Emily Freeman, on its front page. Before taking the PSAT exam, Emily and her classmates were required to copy down a one sentence honor code and sign it.

    Emily explains that the task created more anxiety and confusion than any part of the exam. Writing one brief sentence took many students 15 minutes and the result was illegible. That’s because the teacher administrating the test asked the students to write the code in cursive.

    Emily felt that it was unfair to ask students to write a sentence in a foreign language. She explained that she had only encountered cursive when receiving letters from hre grandmother. In such instances, she hands the letter to a parent for translation.

    I think that Emily Freeman is a gifted writer with a terrific sense of humor. Still, I would prefer that my own daughter learn to write cursive (or at least—to read it), and that she grows to accept it as an alternate method of forming characters rather than foreign language.

    Emily’s Lament
    Cursive Joins the Ranks of Latin and Sanscrit
    By EMILY FREEMAN — Nov. 22 2013 7:14 p.m. ET

    Last month, along with high-school students across the United States, I grudgingly took the PSAT. I would love to reveal what sorts of math and reading comprehension questions the test contains, but I swore to never tell a living soul. Actually, every student who took the PSAT had to copy down an honor code and sign it.

    Here’s what I can tell you: The honor code was the hardest part of the whole test. That’s because it had to be written in cursive.

    The minute the teacher instructed the test-takers to write the one-sentence honor statement in cursive, audible gasps broke out in the room. Cursive? Most students my age have only encountered this foreign language in letters from grandma. Even then, kids take one look and hand the postcard to their parents for translation help.

    The up-and-coming generation—the soon-to-be doctors, politicians, missionaries and possibly even newspaper editors—have no idea how to write or read cursive. Most of the time, kids my age don’t even write using block letters. We just type. Unless some brainiac installs a QWERTY cursive keyboard on iPhones, the style will soon die out.

    After a good 15 minutes, my class finished writing the honor code. What the scribble on my paper actually says remains unknown. I hope my grade on the test doesn’t depend on my ability to hand-write a simple sentence.

    I would have signed my name to this piece to verify that I wrote it. But like most kids my age, I don’t know how.

    Ms. Freeman is a junior at Calvary Baptist Day School in Winston-Salem, N.C

  16. Re:
    “For five centuries, school students have learned to write in longhand about two years after they learn the alphabet.”

    False. The belief in changing from print-writing to cursive is a very recent invention.
    Until the mid-twentieth century, students learning to read the alphabet were taught — at the same early age — to write it in the style they’d be expected to use as adults: a style built with joins, from the get-go. Students learned to write one alphabet, not two.
    In the last few centuries of that write-one-alphabet tradition — from the Baroque era onward — the form that small children were taught, right from the beginning of learning the alphabet, was a cursive relentlessly joined and looped: with elaborate letter-shapes very distant from the printed letters that the beginners were learning to read at the same time. From the very first day at school, print was for reading; cursive was for writing.
    That old practice, in turn, had evolved — or devolved — from a yet earlier handwriting tradition: documented in (e.g.) the first-ever handwriting textbooks, which had been published during the Renaissance. In the Renaissance era, the standard alphabet that students were taught to write, from the beginning of their ABC days, was a semi-joined, streamlined — but overall print-like — style with a slight slant. Only the easiest joins between letters were attempted: the rest were handled by efficient pen-lifts. (This is eerily similar to the writing subconsciously done by the fastest and clearest handwriters today. No matter what they’ve been taught, the highest-speed highest-legibility handwriters tend to gravitate towards producing an efficiently semi-joined and rapid print-like form.)
    This earlier form of lifelong handwriting, pre-dating the conventional cursive that people today sometimes pretend has been around forever, has has various names since its origin — today, it is most often called “italic handwriting” (or “italic” for short) by people who know the history of our handwriting, and by the increasing number today who are reviving italic as a single, simple, rapid handwriting style which can be used consistently from a child’s very first writing lesson and throughout the lifespan. For more information on italic handwriting, and some info on handwriting’s history: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/hwlesson.html
    Pretending that print-then-cursive has been around for five hundred years — or pretending that the writing taught five hundred years ago was the printing or cursive of today — is as if we pretended that people five hundred years ago were texting on mobile phones.

    Kate Gladstone — Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the World Handwriting Contest — http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com

  17. I know I am about three years late to the party, but I wanted to correct a historical misperception about some of the US founding documents. Often in these discussions I hear mention of the importance for children to learn to read cursive so they can read the US Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

    The problem is that both of these documents were for all intensive purposes printed documents. When the Declaration of Independence was finalized on July 4th, 1776, the final Jefferson draft was taken over to the printer John Dunlop, who, overnight, typeset and printed the first official version of the Declaration, which was read at Independence Hall on July 5th, and subsequently distributed throughout the colonies. A few weeks later, the engrossed copy was hand-written in the script we are familiar and signed by the delegates over several months. This was the official file copy, and it was not reproduced or distributed until an engraved copy was made in the 1820s and printed for distribution. But for almost 50 years, the version of the Declaration that people saw, read, and carried throughout the colonies was a letter-press printed broadsheet.

    For the US Constitution, not only was the final copy printed for distribution outside the halls of the Confederation Congress, but the first full draft was also printed in a run of 80 copies for the delegates, with large margins for annotation and ease of editing. The hand-written copy that we think of as the “original” was, again, the engrossed copy, that served as an official file copy. And it was popular to show VIP visitors to the Nations Capital in Philadelphia, but nobody outside of those halls ever saw it until it was reproduced well into the 19th century.

  18. Quite a fascinating history lesson, Ragweed! Thank you for illuminating my readers concerning the script and typesetting of the US founding papers.

    You may be three years late to the party, but this post lingers on as one of the more popular threads at AWildDuck.


  19. My daughter is a high school sophomore. Ben Alderson is a former classmate at the top-ranked Advanced Math and Science Academy in Massachusetts. Now, he attends an equally top-notch private prep school. Where Ben’s education is involved, his parents spare no expense.

    On January 17 2017, Ben tweeted the photo below and a statement. Prepare yourself. It’s jarring—and quite sad. And it comes from a 10th grade student studying at the best charter school in the state.

    As he got to the passage in the middle of the page, He tweeted: I literally can’t read this! [Continue below image]…

    Ben Alderson can't read script

    The first two lines say: “The victim, Emma Elizabeth Smith, was assaulted by two or possibly three attackers”. For anyone born in the 20th century, it’s as easy to read as the block letter paragraphs before and after. But, Millennials, like, Ben don’t see what we see. They stare blankly at an ancient, dead notation written in undecipherable symbols.

    If it were Latin, they would at least recognize the symbols. But with cursive, symbols flow together like an alien squiggle. It is no different than attempting to glean the meaning of sanskrit, hieroglyphics or cuneiform. Although the language is English, it is encoded in a method lost to past generations.

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