A loss of literacy

By Razib Khan | April 28, 2011 12:49 pm

The Case for Cursive:

For centuries, cursive handwriting has been an art. To a growing number of young people, it is a mystery.

The sinuous letters of the cursive alphabet, swirled on countless love letters, credit card slips and banners above elementary school chalk boards are going the way of the quill and inkwell. With computer keyboards and smartphones increasingly occupying young fingers, the gradual death of the fancier ABC’s is revealing some unforeseen challenges.

Not too surprising. But here’s a question: does anyone out there have problems writing by hand, period? I do so little on pen/pencil & paper* that I have been noticing some strangeness in my non-signature writing. Usually when I have to send a letter where I have to write out the address, or perhaps to write something on a card. A lot of our day to day tasks are implicit/subconscious. Our “reflexes” emerge through repetition. But what happens when “basic” tasks become exceptional events? I’ve probably gotten much better at typing with my fingers on my smartphone’s screen at this point than printing out letters. As for cursive, don’t even go there….

* Supermarket shopping lists are now a constantly updated Google Doc which I access in my smart phone.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Cursive, Literacy
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Comments (33)

  1. Ian

    Yeah, my non-signature handwriting (and, for that matter, my signature) has gotten strange over the last decade. I can still write well if I pay attention, but when I stand up in class and scribble notes on student presentations (as I was doing today) my handwriting is odd.

    I can also relate to the loss implicit in being able to read cursive. While both of my maternal grandparents grew up with the old German script, my grandmother switched, so I can read things she wrote. My grandfather never did, so I am unable to read anything he wrote (my rudimentary command of German, of course, doesn’t help). It’s more than just handwriting, of course – I’m not very good at reading books or documents written in that script either. It leaves me cut off from a significant part of my own heritage. (Obviously, it’s even more pronounced with Urdu. But that’s a generation further back.)

  2. ataturk pushed for the switch to latin from arabic for turks for the reason of historical loss of memory in part. the ottoman years are recalled in secondary or oral form. the primary texts are cut off for most.

  3. Eduard

    Me too, my handwriting looks more and more like it did when I was about 9 (now I’m 42).

  4. Apart from my signature, I do not use cursive and haven’t since elementary school. I did a fair amount of writing by hand in college due to taking notes (I’ve noticed that about 1/3rd of my students take notes solely on their laptops, and I imagine the number will continue to increase as more and more people are buying netbooks), so my printing is still fairly intuitive and neat. My letters tend to be small and blocky, like a boy’s handwriting but neater.

  5. The only time in the past few years when I’ve written in cursive was when I had to copy a paragraph of an agreement in cursive for the GRE (such a strange requirement!). I mostly type, but my block letter handwriting is fairly decent, since I spent a good deal of time in high school working to improve it on my own. Until ninth grade, my handwriting was hideous, in cursive or print. Since then, it hasn’t decayed much.

  6. like a boy’s handwriting but neater

    u can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s frame! boy’s handwriting? so heteronormative. do not play the patriarch’s game!

  7. Chris Irwin Davis

    The Turkish experience is one of the reasons for the Persian resistance to adopt a Latin-based writing system like UniPers or EuroFarsi. I suspect they also have a sense that it would adversely affect literacy in their culture.

  8. Look, I can’t be perfect ALL the time!

  9. ogunsiron

    I still handwrite but it looks a bit worse than it used to.
    I notice that I shape the letters in a slightly different style from one day to the next because i’m almost consciously forming the letters instead of relying purely on habit. I can no longer handwrite for a very long time (during written exams for instance) without my hand hurting.

    I’m in no hurry totally ditch handwriting though.
    I have a pad of paper(actual paper!) at my desk and I will often jot down
    a few things here and there and draw a few diagrams to help me figure out the relationships between this and that piece of information.

    Are even math students giving up on the pencils and pens nowadays ?
    Even with the availability of mathematica/sage/maple, it’d seem strange to me to not jot down or draw anything on a piece of paper. Perhaps they use sketching programs.

  10. Stephen

    So its not just me?? I recently had to hand write a sentence and I couldn’t read the resulting scrawl – like I’d been holding a pen in my fist rather than my fingers. Thought I must have had a stroke!

  11. Vex

    Hmm, never really thought about it. I still do a bit of writing at work, mostly short hand notes taken during phone calls or the odd bit of paperwork, but mostly I use the computer. For me to write in script now requires some real concentration – it no longer naturally flows.

    Then again, I took to typing very naturally. Once I got my first computer, I was quickly able to type faster and easier than handwriting. I prefer typing over handwriting and wish I would’ve had the option in school for note-taking.

    Now, when it comes to smartphone based shopping lists, I think it’s the best thing out there. No more shopping lists left at home on the counter! With this wondrous technology, I am now capable of coming home with everything I needed.

  12. Jumblepudding

    On the rare occasion that I write by hand, I have reverted to they way I did in elementary school-deliberate, well formed letters. It’s like I’ve regressed past my adulthood writing where I was scribbling to the period where I was meticulous to impress the teacher.

  13. Anthony

    I mostly hand print in all caps, but I’m a civil engineer; that’s sort of an expected style. It’s also because I have atrocious cursive – neat handwriting was one thing my parents didn’t push me on in school. Having to do field reports on NCR paper hurts my hand if I write too much (about half a page), but if I don’t have to press hard, it’s not nearly so bad.

    I have seen another engineer whose hand-printed all-caps were nearly illegible – he was on his way to reinventing cursive, almost.

  14. leviticus

    My pr0blem is I quit long hand writing in Latin script, but continued to write by hand in Cyrillic. My cursive, in particular, is really screwed up. If I write fast and don’t pay attention I get the letters all mixed up.

    For some reason, it is my male friends (particularly Americans) who have lost their penmanship, my female friends and acquaintances have maintained good form even when taking notes or writing quick messages. Foreigners tend to have better form than Americans. But we also went over to typing much earlier. I’ve never seen Japanese penmanship, another nation I’m guessing who went over to exclusively typing early on, perhaps their handwriting has also suffered.

  15. Ian

    I hadn’t thought about all-caps. I use that a lot on the blackboard, one of two places where I do a fair amount of writing. I still write pretty well in all-caps, but it’s something I learned to do in my late teens, intensionally modelled on my father’s.

    The other place I write is when I’m thinking. Cursive and print mix, an almost illegible scrawl. Not a problem when I’m just thinking something through. Bad when I need to figure out what I wrote.

  16. I’ve always had lousy handwriting. The first time I got a C in anything in school was for that.

  17. I’m mildly dysgraphic, so learning to write anything legible was a real struggle. If I’m not concentrating, I can even screw up my own signature. Oddly, after realizing I was losing my hard-won ability to write cursive, I started a small hobby of writing longhand snail mail letters in cursive to friends and family to keep it up. It’s actually had quite a bit of utility in my life, from gaining favor from elderly relatives, to really focusing on the process of writing, as opposed to just typing whatever.

  18. djw

    I gave up on cursive in high school. I still write a lot. I put most of my lectures on the blackboard, because I dislike writing equations in powerpoint (in fact, I dislike powerpoint in general). I also have to hand-write notes before every lecture. I never look at them, but it helps me to organize my thoughts.

    I recently bought a motorola xoom and I dowloaded an app called repligo reader that allows me to open a pdf and write on it. If I write normal size it is illegible, but when I write very big and then shrink it afterwords it looks pretty good. I will use this to write exam solutions for my students. Since the tablet stylus is a bit clumsy to write with I have found that I have become more careful with my writing, not less careful. I think my handwriting is better now than it has ever been.

  19. Åse

    I don’t think it is my style (it has mostly been difficult to read anyway, long before I routinely did the majority of my writing via keyboard – but then, I was well into adulthood when the computers became ubiquitous). But, it clearly is my stamina. I used to write long stories and poetry, day out and day in in long hand when I was a teen, and a bit into my twenties. Then, when I was doing my PhD, and began with the long-hand (because in my mind, I don’t know if it is long hand or on computer that is best for draughts, because I’m caught between…. whaaa), I would actually get hand cramps. Just no stamina anymore.

    Oh, but I did notice that the notes I took the first time I went to the university (in 1978), which I actually never read anyway, looked neater and more legible than the notes I took when I returned in 1990, so perhaps there has been an effect.

    I still have to read hand-written exams though. Sweden doesn’t believe in multiple choice.

  20. mdb

    I wrote for the first time (other than my signature – which is even a rare event now) in about a year in early April to mail and pay taxes. I pay everything else online. It was funny when I did it, because I remember pausing to look at it, double/triple checking it, did I make a mistake? Something from my past, it was odd, I was unsure of myself. My signature has slowly become little more than X, but a long name that never fits in the box or on the line started this process decades ago.

  21. Katherine

    I take notes in cursive writing all the time — though my hand is somewhat of a mixture between print and cursive, the majority of the letters are cursive. My penmanship has always been um, ugly? though, and that hasn’t changed. But I enjoy writing by hand, so I’ve never stopped doing it.

  22. E

    I’ve always preferred cursive–in fact, I got reprimanded by my first grade teacher for teaching myself cursive before it was taught in school. I still maintain a handwritten journal, so I’m not even out of practice. My husband does the same, though he went to school in another country until age 14, and not a Latin-script country, either, so he was somewhat self-taught.

  23. > does anyone out there have problems writing by hand
    Can’t tell if it’s harder to write or to read my own scribbling. Thank God for typed and properly indented code blocks.

    > like a boy’s handwriting but neater
    To be expected of female nerds, if I may say so.

  24. A keep a journal by hand specifically for the purpose of allowing me to write down thoughts away from a computer. Honestly, it is more to save my eyes than an issue of handwriting v. typing. If I had an old manual typewriter, I might use it instead.

    I am looking at a screen for a dozen hours a day or more and my eyes just need a break after a while.

  25. Pete

    I learned cursive in school and, as any left-hander, found it difficult to do. At about 10 I changed to some kind of blockletter which looks bad under the best of circumstances. I now only hand-write taking short notes like shopping lists or to-do lists. It looks hideous.
    On the other hand my mother (now 89 years) has always had the same flowing cursive handwriting and I always enjoy receiving her birthday- and seasons greetings and admire the postmen that have to decipher my address from them.

  26. Sandgroper

    Andrew, been there and done that, and it’s a good way to send yourself blind.

    Next question – who can do mental arithmetic?

  27. Chris T

    Always have had terrible handwriting, computers have been a godsend.

  28. Walter Sobchak

    I have read similar complaints about the loss of scribal skills by the current generation of youth in the CJK language countries especially as concerns the writing of Chinese characters. For the purposes of the English speaking world, or indeed of most European alphabetic languages, I doubt that it will make very much difference. Because calligraphy has been an important art form in East Asia, the loss of handwriting skills might be more important.

  29. Matt B.

    I can’t even figure out why cursive was invented. It’s not much faster, and a lot less legible. My brother gets away with doing his signature in print on his checks.

    Maybe when no one writes in cursive anymore we also won’t have those annoying people that call cursive “handwriting” (as if there’s no other way to write by hand).

    Did you know that the only reason i’s have dots is so that iu and ui could be distinguished in cursive? I write i’s without dots now.

  30. My handwriting has actually gotten better. I’ve also lost a good deal of weight, so I may be feeling better about myself, and thus expressing a greater degree of confidence in my abilities.

  31. phanmo

    I am usually unable to read something that I’ve handwritten if I don’t remember at least the general gist. I’ve always had terrible handwriting but I’m now incapable of writing in cursive. It’s a serious drawback because I live in France now, where many business still believe in graphology(unbelievable! I keep expecting that they’ll want to check the bumps on my head as well!) and demand handwritten cover letters with a résumé .

  32. Careless

    Like Ase, I lost my stamina through college as I typed basically everything except for in-class tests. By the end, putting sufficient WPM on the page was sometimes more a problem of stamina than thinking.

    As for form, mine was always poor. At least it hasn’t gotten worse

  33. ackbark

    I attribute the decline in my handwriting not to typing on a keypad but to gripping the mouse for hours on end. It cements in place a natural flex of the arm muscle, so when you try to create the subtle motions of writing the muscle memory is over written by the singular flex.

    That said, I’ve hardly ever been able to write cursive at all and simply gave up trying sometime in the fourth grade, to the utter scandal of my teachers.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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