Curtains for Cursive?

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Cursive, foiled for good? [michgm / Flickr]

A recent article in the Washington Post forecast the end of cursive. What was once essential to commerce, diplomacy, and personal intercourse, the Post suggested, now seems as quaint as a rotary telephone.

The article sparked debate throughout the blogosphere. Many bloggers bemoan the demise of personal penmanship as the end of a more dignified era. Others say “good riddance” to handwriting and welcome the technological advances that are rendering it obsolete.

How great is this loss? Substantial, say some. This camp asserts that writing in script benefits both writer and recipient alike. Palmer Method proponents contend that connecting one letter fluidly to another strengthens neural pathways in a way that striking a keyboard, or even penning block letters, doesn’t. They also cite the benefits to the reader, calligraphy on heavy vellum being a superior sensory experience to that of the Evite.

On the other side there are those whose early educations put the curse in cursive. To many adults of a certain age, the charm of elegant handwriting wasn’t worth the bloody knuckles acquired in learning the craft. And even those too young to have been subjected to the regimen of slants and ovals welcome the scalable electronic font as a quick ticket to legibility and email and text messaging as the tools of commerce and intimacy. Who needs handwriting, they ask. It’s time consuming, labor-intensive, and ecologically unsustainable.

Would you rally to keep cursive off the endangered species list? When you jot something down do you write in script or do you print? Would you miss getting those handwritten notes from Great Uncle Aleicester or would an email from him be equally valuable? When was the last time you sent someone a handwritten note, or received one?

Update, 11/17/06, 5:30 pm

Enter Our Cursive Contest

If you can guess whose handwriting this is we’ll send you an Open Source T-shirt. All that is required of you is that you listen to the show for the answer. Post your answer in our comment thread.

Update, 11/30/06, 4:46 pm

Andre Cataluna

Andre Cataluna won this years Zaner-Bloser Handwriting Contest. He’s an 8th grader attendning Saint Philomena. He llives in Carson, CA. We’ll hear from him during the broadcast. Check out his winning entry:

Margaret Shepherd


Author, The art of the Handwritten Note and Learn Calligraphy


Calligrapher at Large, Founding Member, The Society of Scribes, New York City

Roger Rubin

Handwiting Analyst

Chris Lozos

Graphic Designer, Dezcom

Extra Credit Reading

Margaret Webb Pressler The Handwriting Is on the Wall, The Washington Post, October 11, 2006: “When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.”

(via Potter) Stuart JeffriesThe Death of Handwriting, The Guardian, February 14, 2006: “(The less prosaic version is to be found in Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates tells the story of a god who offers an Egyptian king a miraculous aid to frail human memory. The king is sceptical, as is Socrates who warns that writing will replace memory and argues that the truth that lives in the human soul will be dissolved in its translation into ambiguous inscription. (Ironically, as Jacques Derrida pointed out, we only know of Socrates’ sceptical thoughts about writing because Plato wrote them down.)”

Eric Zorn Cursive, Foiled Again., Change of Subject, hosted by The Chicago Tribune October 11, 2006: “Still, cursive itself strikes me as the slide rule of the humanities — a relic whose passage into history deserves a shrug, not a tear.”

Is the Art of Handwriting Fading in Classrooms?,, October 11, 2006: “‘On any given day if we have to choose between teaching handwriting or teaching children to read, something is going to be left out.'”

Editorial, Go With the Flow: Cursive is dying, but communication is alive, The Dallas Morning News, October 14, 2006: “We are pretty certain that it’s less important how succeeding generations communicate than that they hone communications skills.”

Emilie van Outeren Doctors Turn to Penmanship Courses the Cure Bad Handwriting, Columbia News Service, April 4, 2006: “‘An average 8-year-old gets lessons from someone who had their own training at that age,’ said Kate Gladstone, a handwriting instructor from Albany, N.Y., who also teaches doctors. ‘Imagine we did the same with arithmetic.’ She tells doctors their illegible scrawls are not their fault. ‘Their writing skills don’t hold up at the speed doctors now have to write.'”

Lydia Joyce The Problems of Not Teaching Handwriting,, August 10, 2006: “In more and more schools today, writing is taught…but handwriting isn’t. I’ve talked to a number of people my age, and many had the same experience I have: a K or 1st grade teacher tells you how to shape your letters once, and after that, you just get practice worksheets thrown at you, one every day of the week. In third grade, when you “learn” cursive, the process is repeated. If your handwriting is bad (like mine!), they simply write on your paper that you should “try to be neater”. Meanwhile, since you WERE trying, nothing is solved.”

Ezra Klein Cursive, Ezra Klein, October 11, 2006: “And while some cognitive scientists are arguing that kids who write in cursive show increased aptitude for long, complex essays, I’d like to see some studies (which there may well be — I just haven’t seen any) that disaggregate script from other factors like race, income, and ability that make a kid more likely to learn and write in cursive. Correlation, causation, and all that.”

Jason Cox Die, Cursive, Die, Unfettered Blather, October 11, 2006: “While it might actually be shame to lose this older form of handwriting, it serves no functional purpose in the modern world. You could argue that it is an “artform”, but there is other art I am far more interested in.”

And check out the thread The Death of Cursive on The Typophile Forums


Handwriting has always been in a state of change. Just the way that movies did not kill live theater, all the text messaging and e-mail is not going to kill handwriting; it’ll just reconfigure it. Handwriting is satisfying to people as a way to express themselves. They pick better words.

Margaret Shepard


French companies use graphologists (people who assess character through handwriting) to evaluate managers, people in the middle ranks, and the upper ranks of the company. They do this as form of screening, in order to find out what to expect of the person, whether they’re going to meet psychological requirements of the job they’re applying for. Also, the secret services; Mossad, CIA, the British and Russian Secret Service use handwriting analysts to evaluate spies. Their capacity to deal with tension and stress. … The fact that people write gives a good insight into a person’s personality, their possibilites. It doesn’t tell everything about a person, but it does tell a great deal.

Roger Rubin


When people improve their handwriting, it’s a virtuous circle- they start writing more. That’s one of the things that I think may be the death of cursive; if you don’t use it, it gets worse and then you don’t use it more, and it looks even worse.

Margaret Shepard


A graphic writer sees in handwriting two different things… you try to see the communication value, not just in what the words are, but in what the tool conveys. It’s just another tool, like typography, or photography, to convey a message.


Put down that ball-point. Pick up a fountain pen. Pad your writing sheet with two pads of paper. Sit up straight, warm up, and write.

Margaret Shepard

Related Content

  • In 16 years of schooling, I ever received only one C–in penmanship. Now, despite writing for a living on a computer, despite no longer being judged by anyone, I find myself oddly possessed by the desire to learn to write in a legible, distinctive, expressive hand. So I check out books on better handwriting, and online courses, and I seek out examples on the Web of hand-written manuscripts, letters, and notebook or journal entries, and I write each day with a lovely fountain pen, taking care with penmanship like I haven’t done for 30 or more years. Perhaps it’s the allure of the handmade, or just the desire to slow down my prose process. I can’t say that hand-scribed stories are any better, at least in my case, but I am attached to the idea, nevertheless.

  • I was always lousy at writing cursive. What is more I could never read my grandma’s cursive writing in her many birthday cards and thank you notes, which makes me sad in some ways. As a cartoonist, penning your own letters is one of the hallmarks of burliness (cursive is a good ‘secret weapon’). Thus for illustrators cursive will never have an expiration date, and I find that very attractive.

  • Look, people said the same thing about the marginalization of scrolls in favor of the portable codex. “The codex is so much less fluid! It chops up thoughts into discrete pages instead of allowing a thinker to flow their thoughts across the papyrus.” OK, that was a joke, but I think people were saying that in the Roman Empire, and Jews still keep the Torah as a scroll.

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    My grandmother had beautiful penmanship. Her last letters have a quavering quality that make me cherish them all the more as I can see the effort she took and her age in the script itself.

    I mostly write with a keyboard. One paragraph of hand writing and my carpel tunnel kicks in but there are some communications that demand hand writing. For example, I would feel slighted if I got a typewritten love letter unless my dearest was indeed under the gravest duress. A few splatters of blood on the page and a photo of him with his poor broken hands might help lessen the slight. Hand made marks on the page are so much more personal and more revealing.

  • redandgray

    Disclaimer: As a child I got straight A’s in handwriting, but I still hated the way my writing looked. Thirty years ago, I resolved to retrain my hand, and after about a year of writing in a modified chancery style with an italic nib, I was much happier.

    Writing, like etiquette, is a way of expressing personal style with discipline based on a shared set of constraints. To be useful, handwriting must be legible. To be beautiful, it must embody rhythm and personality. There is a simple joy in writing well, but most Americans don’t realize this joy is worthwhile, much less attainable. Why learn to play an instrument when you can download the music? It doesn’t help that the letters of the Palmer method, particularly the majuscules, are so grossly distorted and ugly that they quell any innate enthusiasm for writing.

    Today, calligraphy has been reduced to a dime-store craft kit. Our children learn to write by watching others who never learned to write themselves. The generational link has been severed and a tradition is unraveling. With the decline of writing, we lose the individuality, the spontaneity, the style and flair, that handwriting exudes. It makes us monotonous, even when we have a full catalog of typefaces from which to choose.

  • rebarebar

    My handwriting has never been stellar, despite the practice forced on me by the nuns, and a very patient grandmother. Perhaps it is my lefthandedness, ruining the ink as my hand blotted the words I had just written.

    But with all that, I continue to buy and create and use blank greeting cards to send notes to people I am thinking about.

    And I see it as part of my marketing (so therefore set aside time every week for) handwriting notes to my guests who have taken the time to give us thoughtful criticism (we invite the comments with forms in their rooms). I don’t keep copies of these notes, and I can only estimate how many I’ve written over the years. It is, I feel, a small guerilla action I can take that might give a pleasant surprise to someone: a real letter in the midst of the junk mail.

  • One thing I have pondered is this: no matter how digitized and electronically networked and technologically sophisticated our culture becomes, we still make our commitments, take on our legal obligations, and reach accord by means of our signatures. Our names penned by hand remain the standard.

  • I never learned cursive well, and I envied the people around me who could do it. I simply didn’t have the patience to practice. Getting the words on the paper as quickly as possible seemed much more important.

    I still envy people who can do this. My Mom writes beautiful handwritten notes, birthday cards and stuff. My son, privately schooled, is learning this skill and already has neater cursive than I ever had. Neal Stephenson composes his voluminous novels in cursive with a fountain pen.

    I write at least one postcard or letter each day, and I have done this for a year and one-half now. This discipline has forced me to slow down enough so that these printed missives can actually be read by the people to whom I send them. And the post office seems to be able to read the addresses consistently, now. And I know that these hand-written notes, even though they are printed and not in cursive, are appreciated more than email would be.

    But I’m afraid I don’t have the time to learn cursive, although I’ve thought about it. I suspect that a neat cursive hand is, and will continue to be the mark of wealthy parents and a private education. Too many other skills take priority in the educations of people other socioeconomic groups these days.

  • dieing philosopher!

    oh, I don’t know. I have never paid any thought to handwriting (being a visually impaired it is not surprising anyway!). of course I am not entitled to have a say here, but I think that it won’t matter (whether U use electronic media, whether U use typewriter, whether U use your own hands to write), the content of your writing would matter more to me. somebody might write abusive letter in a beautiful handwriting or somebody might write a love letter (oh, I wish, somebody would) in uniform, ugly, monotonous electronic characters; what would most of us choose?

  • kevinjbowman

    My penman ship is quite poor, however I think the hand written not is vital because it shows an decision to be intentional. A handwritten note left the seat of my wife’s car, means I planned the event. A handwritten note in my daughter’s Little Tyke mailbox, means daddy stopped before work to note how special she is to me. A handwritten thank you note to a person who has done something to bless my life, shows the deep sense of my appreciation to them. I believe we need to keep the handwritten note because it of it’s intentionalness. Of course, like Cave, all my notes are printed!

  • In the spirit of full disclosure- I grew up typing my assignments. Cursive class was a painful ordeal, and being a lefty didn’t help. I have decent handwriting, but can only write a page at a time before writer’s cramp puts me down.

    I think, though, that we need to separate the phenomina of handwriting vs. typing from paper vs. electronic.

    I’m a big proponant of cursive, and I love to recieve a beautifully written letter or note. On the other hand, a typewritten letter, so long as it’s thoughtfully written (and signed!), is a wonderful thing, too. I always type long letters, and add handwritten marginalia, sketches or photographs. To subject a loved one to my steadily deteriorating hand is too cruel, or at least impolite, and it’s limiting to have to rest an hour after every 300 words.

    What I worry about is less that people will stop writing things by hand (they won’t- computers can’t do what paper does) but that they’ll start to send every note and letter electronically. Email is great, I use it for personal communications, and I love it. It’s hardly archival, though. What we put down on paper is an record, for our family and posterity. A friend of mine had his grandparents stately and passionate courtship letters tied in a bundle in his basement. Fascinating and important stuff.

  • rahbuhbuh

    Learning cursive was just as painful in third grade as learning to type in sixth. Different muscles of the hand cramped and different neurons in the brain fired. Script became unnecessary when better pens came about. We just kept it around for sentimental and ornamental value, rightfully. Diplomas and invitations just don’t have the same authority without script. Script is gorgeous as a practiced craft.

    Open Source should talk to:

    1. Someone who helped build the text recognition machines or software used by the post office (who had to program the code to learn and recognize all the illegible variations of human hand)


    2. Someone Swiss who’s environment is almost wholly sans serif, their graphic designers long since abandoning any ornamentation in their text. A child of Modernist culture would provide an interesting perspective.

    I handwrite my ideas and lists into a little reporter’s notebook because it is a faster and looser connection from brain to hand, indicative of concepts and sketches. Printing is deliberate, if I intend anyone else to ever read the thought-through content. But, I prefer to type as most people do, it’s the most efficient method whose result is legible, trasnlatable, malleable, spell-checkable, etc…

  • nother

    Does this mean in the future I will be able to read what the doctor writes on that slip of paper?

  • plnelson

    I won’t shed any tears for it. Kids have plenty enough to learn in school, and Americans are so abysmally ignorant on so many topics, that any classroom time wasted on instruction or practicing cursive could be put to better use. I say dump it.

  • I agree with Willfro about separating the issue of whether communication on paper is better than electronically from the question of how that paper communication is conducted (typed or block-letter printed or cursive.) Typewritten pages are nice, although I often wonder, given the prevalence of computers, whether I am looking at a form letter. Even the Christmas letters people send me sometimes seem more like email, rather than personal communications.

    I brought this up around the dinner table last night and it turns out that my Son had begun to learn cursive in public schools here in Lowell, Massachusetts. So maybe my comments about class in a previous post were erroneous. I don’t know.

  • kaha

    You can say “curtains” but I will still take pleasure in my cursive. What can I say? It’s uniform, beautiful, and just comes out of my hand, a gift I treasure.

    How else to look busy during a boring meeting than to create as nearly perfect as humanly possible script alphabets in my notebook? It worked in grade school, it worked in high school, it worked in college, and it still gets me through those meetings.

    And yes, I hand write all my greeting cards. Why pay $3.00 OR MORE (much more) for a printed card, when I can get a blank sheet of high quality paper and matching envelope for half that amount at Kate’s Paperie? Would you rather receive a personal message, or one of those off the shelf cards?

  • You can say ‘Cursive” but what do you mean by that? The really ugly, hard to read letters of the Palmer script, which are being taught to my 10 and 14 year old sons, deserves to die and never revive. Learning copperplate cursive, which is apparently very popular among homeschooled fundamentalist christians, seems artistically preferable. But my impression is that it’s slower, and really only works with a special flexible pen, so you can get the thins and thicks right. On the other hand, we do write by hand a lot, even people like me who mostly type. If you can’t read people’s writing, how do you know what they mean? So, I vote that we teach kids some form of chancery italics. There are courses available, it’s not all that hard, and apparently there is normative evidence that italic letters are easier for children to learn than the Palmer script.

  • I learned a middling-to-reasonable copperplate hand to do the addresses for my wedding invitations (1991). It is (well, can be) beautiful, but the equipment required is even worse than you mention.

    That nib not only needs to be flexible as you mention, but it also has a tiny ball at the very tip so it can move up the page without digging into the paper as well as down. And right-handers need a pen with an offset nib holder (or a nib that itself is offset) because the nib needs to be pointing up to the right.

    I have never seen a cartridge/fountain copperplate nib, so also consider that you’ll need to deal with an open bottle of ink for this style.

    On the plus side, I don’t think it is slower than any other calligraphic style. In particular, fewer lifts of the pen are required than for the wide, flat nibs typically sold as “calligraphy” pens and the nib can accomodate a tiny reservoir to hold at least half a line’s worth of ink. ,

    I’m not sure what the connection to fundamentalist homeschooling might be… I would certainly not recommend copperplate materials to young children.

    But getting back to “cursive…”

    My daughter — now eight — attended a Montessori school for a few years. They teach writing in cursive — I’m not sure what version, but I don’t think it was Palmer — using a pencil. The principle is that the smooth, repetitive motions help teach fine motor skills. That seems plausible. Now in a public school, she has heard that they will be using cursive in fourth grade and she’s looking forward to getting back to that style of writing.

  • We’re seem to all be talking about methods- Copperplate, Palmer, whatever we learned at school. What about the notion that handwriting should be some sort of personal expression? My mother’s hand is stunning, distinctive and legible, but it doesn’t conform to a particular style- her post-it notes are treasures. Chinese calligraphers aren’t even expected to be legible- you’re supposed to study and meditate on their work, not just read it. They often worked while drunk.

    I just think about the wretched style that was forced on me, and how long it took to shake some of those habits…

  • jdyer

    The disuse of handwriting may not be problem for our culture in general, but it will change the way individuals relate to language and especially to texts and ultimately to each other and ourselves.

    Handwriting has the effect of keeping us closer to the language we transmit. The kind of bodily sensation we feel when writing is quite different then when typing on a keyboard.

    In writing we use not just our pen but our hand, arm and through it our whole body. In forming the letters we reveal a sense of individuality.

    In handwriting a letter we pass on not just the written a verbal message but also a physical sensation. It’s something analogous to face to face speech the tone of voice, the rhythm of our speech the speed of delivery reveals us as much or more than the verbal message communicated.

    I wonder if in the near future our spoken words will be converted into signals which will then be transmitted by some digital system in kind of machine voice.

    The direction of technology is clear: not the simplification of existence but the ultimate disappearance of the subject. With the subject gone, what need will there be for deconstruction?

    This state of affairs may be irreversible and it has been prepared for us since the invention of writing. As Plato noted in The Phaedrus, the invention of writing will kill memory. The alphabet was but the beginning of technological revolution which is ongoing. It isn’t just memory which is at stake now, but the sense of selfhood.

  • japhyryder

    My father has impeccable penmanship…both his cursive and print is perfect. When I was a kid and struggling mightily with my handwriting homework I asked him why his was so good. He told me that when he was 13 he wanted a typewriter and so his dad took him to the store, they picked one out and his dad said, “When you can write well, I’ll buy this for you.” he went home and practiced until he earned his typewriter.

    He can type pretty quickly, but he collects pens and stationary. He writes great letters and notes in longhand.

    As a second thought…is the degradation of the pen and paper themselves related to the decline of handwriting?

  • mimsong

    a wise professor of educational history was once asked about the idea of a museum of education as part of the smithsonian. she replied, ‘why build one of those when every school in america already has dozens?’

    uggh, all this sentimental crap about cursive! consider it in the context of how much time is wasted teaching it, and what’s not taught as a result! i’m in favor of teaching hand skills — how about drawing from life, rendering objects, and mechanical drafting as substitutes?

    and do all these yawping yuppie throwbacks really consider “a fine hand” an essential marker of grace and style? if we yearn for the classical past, why not teach poetry, rhetoric, and logic? god knows nothing resembling those ever get into the curriculum around here. on the contrary, every elementary school classroom sags through hundreds of wasted golden hours the dullest way imaginable, mostly because every dry and demented school board member could not bear the innovation, the realism, required to re-think the ink. can we not conceive of a diligence that is not cramped?

    who’s willing to join me in perhaps the easiest battle in school reform, the utter demolition of the cursive curriculum? i will not rest until the last capital ‘z’ is strangled with the last lowercase ‘g’.

  • mimsong

    i think that’s jfk’s handwriting

  • jesusmparks

    Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford’s commencement ceremonies last year about one of the true gifts we both took away from our common alma mater: Reed College in Portland Oregon; some level of skill at and far more appreciation of calligraphy.

    Lloyd Reynolds single-handedly made Reed the epicenter of what will likely be the last renaissance of the musical art of the lettered hand.

    There are hundreds of Reed graduates who survived the intensity of their senior year by spending an hour or two each week learning to write beautifully from Lloyd and his successor, Father Robert Paladino.

    In our day virtually every sign or banner displayed on campus was hand calligraphed.

    Lloyd created a delightful little artform of calligraphing short poems and koans on 4 inch long strips usually cut from brown paper shopping bags and hung from the blossoming plum trees in the Spring. He called them weathergrams.

    The names of every graduate was calligraphed on their diplomas.

    It was all beautiful and redolent of the tradition of liberal studies that we were inhaling.

    Steve Jobs cited this training as what led him to make the Macintosh the first computer with multiple fonts, including the rather cursive Apple Chancery.

    Compounding that advance was the release of the Apple LaserWriter which included Adobe’s new vector description and rendering software known as PostScript – and thus the modern age of desktop publishing was born and made accessible to all of us.

    Sadly, Reed eliminated the course back in the mid-80s; right about the time of the release of the Mac.

  • JP

    I’ll venture to guess that the writing belongs to Mr. Lydon.

  • Potter

    From The Death of Handwriting article in “The Guardian” :

    in Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates tells the story of a god who offers an Egyptian king a miraculous aid to frail human memory. The king is sceptical, as is Socrates who warns that writing will replace memory and argues that the truth that lives in the human soul will be dissolved in its translation into ambiguous inscription. (Ironically, as Jacques Derrida pointed out, we only know of Socrates’ sceptical thoughts about writing because Plato wrote them down.)

    We recently stopped to admire an exhibition case of items that related to the history of Brooklyn New York around the now booming Brooklyn Bridge area ( called “DUMBO”). In the case was an engineer’s handwritten specification sheet for the cable. The cursive letters, the numbers were beautiful.

    My late mother in-law, a schoolteacher, wrote her recipes in such perfect script. I would not be able to tell the difference between her script and that engineer’s so uniform and perfect they are.

    I remember my own penmanship books and how I was praised and loved it at age 8 ( third grade) when I went up to the blackboard and made a perfect “s” ( in lower case). But over the years that perfect script became more and more personalized and( for me) seemed more like my own calligraphy, my own expression very mush related to drawing ( which I love to do).

  • japhyryder

    i think that the sample is bill clinton’s

  • Growing up left handed has always been tough for me, penmanship wise. It takes me a long time to write, I press down extremely hard, and my writing is very hard to read (to the point, that at times, I can’t read my own writing!). My creative force was always slowed down to a point that I’d lose interest , because of the effort I’d have to go through to write.

    I’ve been journaling/blogging since 2002 and I’ve fell in love with writing. It’s gone from being a tedious chore, to sweet bliss. Had it not been for the invention of computers/word processors, my love for writing would have been lost in the mire of my own horrid penmanship.

    There are times when I’d love to be able to have better penmanship, specifically, writing my loves. It’s an intimate act that shows effort and emotion. I wish I could give that away, but I can’t. But I’ve found a love, in words, and I refuse to complain.

  • I think the handwriting sample belongs to Nancy Reagan. At least, its style looks very like the Nancy Reagan signatures I have seen.

    Kate Gladstone – the Handwriting Repairwoman

  • mdhatter

    is that the penmanship of Kurt Vonnegut?

  • JohnS

    Robert Frost said there came a time when he could write only on foolscap. Whether he wrote with pen or pencil or in cursive or copperplate, I do not know.

    I write and print and type with pens and pencils and keyboards and styli. Yet my writing is to his as sand and clay are to the moon and stars.

    If I limit myself to cursive on yellow, will my words ever equal his?

  • Chirdon

    That cursive is positively Clintonian. Bill, that is.

  • Sutter

    Honestly? I can barely write legibly in block letters. I type everything I can. In meetings I take handwritten notes, but they’re mostly useless — even to me — afterwards. Cursive does nothing for me. (Hardest part of the LSAT for me was writing the paragraph-long statement promising that I didn’t cheat, which (back then at least) had to be copied (and of course signed) in cursive. It took me forever!)

  • Sutter

    Oh, and my guess for the sample is George Herbert Walker Bush (41).

  • joshua hendrickson


    A few years ago I decided to challenge myself: I would write my next novel in longhand in composition books rather than typing it. I didn’t use cursive, though I believe my own script to be fairly clean and clear. I just couldn’t bring myself to write creatively using a flowing script. The words, somehow, just had to be composed of printed letters. I managed about 300 pages like that … and damned near drove myself insane in the process, not to mention gave myself a near-permanent case of writer’s cramp. From then on I have pretty much stuck with typing as my means to writing subsequent novels.

    Also, I have noticed over the years how my cursive signature has grown sloppier and less legible, with some of the letters just disappearing on occasion. Ah well, I know I’m not the worst at it; an ex of mine had a habit of signing her name with two short lines with nary a bump or slash or swoop to be seen.

  • Bill Weber

    As the parent of a 5th grade boy, the “old school” part of me is very annoyed that our school leaders have thrown up their collective hands and written off not just cursive but any apparent concern for handwriting quality.

    In the lower grades, block printing is taught, and teachers seem to care about neatness, form and proper pencil grip. But our school is in the midst of a transition from using one trendy style of printing to another (the one they favor forms round letters in the opposite direction to cursive!). So in 3rd and 4th grade, some kids (especially boys) struggle mightily with cursive — both because they have to unlearn their block style and because it is very obvious that the teachers don’t really care how well they catch on. As a result, kids labor to do schoolwork with incomplete training in how to scribe properly.

    By the middle of 4th grade (when all eyes are on cramming for our state assessments), any thought of penmanship goes out the window. Printing, cursive, keyboarded — any form is acceptable for homework (keyboarding is introduced in 3rd grade, loosely). Handwriting neatness, pencil grip, letter shape and size (and, I hate to say, spelling!) doesn’t count.

    The same is true now in 5th grade. Parents and kids are told at the start of the year that, since kids’ writing is all over the map, any form for homework was fine. (The teacher even laughed when he suggested parents of keyboarders keep spell-check turned on to “help” the kids with their spelling!)

    Of course, having a choice at home is one thing. But in the classrooms, handwriting is the only practical option, since classrooms only have one computer, which is reserved for research projects and for kids who qualify for “accommodations.” So, kids have to write by hand. For slow and sloppy writers, classwork is thus a struggle.

    This practice is not new. It’s been going on for several years — long enough that the word among parents is that there are children in our high school who have trouble READING cursive when their teachers use it on the chalkboard. True or urban myth, that’s a pretty damning commentary on a basic failure of our schools.

    Back at the beginning of this note I mentioned my “old school” side. The “new” me doesn’t at all mind that my son is being encouraged to use a keyboard (if only more laptops were available at his school). The keyboard will be his primary form of composition for the rest of his life. So while there is something “civilized” about writing a thank-you note or a sympathy card in cursive, life will go on and people will continue to communicate in written form.

    One final thought — on NPR recently I heard a glowing review of the latest voice-activation software. That’s really where we’re headed. My son would be perfectly happy right now to dictate his Ancient Egypt homework project rather than keyboard it. Why — because it functions at the speed of his brain. He can think and speak much faster than he can type. He gets frustrated when he has to tap-tap-tap his ideas, which have raced way ahead of his fingers. Sure his typing speed will catch up over time. But why not let him leap right to the next generation of writing tools now, and let him build his confidence as a wordsmith and communicator first?

  • When I taught third grade, the thing I dreaded most was teaching cursive. The kids were all enthused prior to the start of the lessons. From September until Christmas, every day some kid would ask, as if the transition from printing to cursive is a right of passage.

    Then the lessons started. I brought out the cursive letters that were posted over the chalkboard and the cursive worksheets. It wasn’t long before the kids who were prodding for cursive lessons were cursing the cursive, and wanted to go back to other fun things.

    At about this point, I discovered that the fourth grade teacher LOVED cursive, and would happily come teach the subject if I could get her kids to multiply and divide.

    My concerns about teaching cursive are in the clear context of the 21st century technology. Do we have the time to spend teaching two systems of handwriting? There aren’t enough minutes in the school day to achieve all the curriculum objectives, and I believe cursive is low on the list of priorities.

    The New York Times has another story about $150 laptops. Keyboarding seems to be the basic skill of the early 21st century, and unless technology takes us in another direction, penmanship should go the way of the inkwell.

  • My memories of the Palmer method are intwined with the corporal punishment of angry nuns. So, while my mother would oooo and ahhh over the shape of my ‘Bs’ and ‘Ws,’ I bristled at the perfect uniformity of curves, crossed-ts and Qs whose little tails could dip only so far. As a result my handwriting now is abysmal and anarchic. But it is as distinctive as individual personality and I think that’s why anyone appreciates a handwritten note; these extended autographs are lettered portraits of who we are.

  • japhyryder

    i’ve been thinking more about this and the relationship between stationary and pens with handwriting seems important. there at least seems a corollary relationship…it’s as hard to find great handwriting as it is to find great paper

  • jdancy

    I think that an important part of this discussion needs to be on not just the death of cursive writing, but the death of a written record of our history and our time. I do everything by email, IM, and any other form of communication that doesn’t involve handwriting. I’ve just grown too impatient to get my thoughts out on paper.

    One of my favorite things about history though, is that so much can be learned by letters and correspondence that, up until my parent’s time, was so common place. I read one book on called the “Brotherhood of Valor”, about two units fighting in the Civil War. It relied heavily on letters written home and quoted them liberally. The letters are absolutely beautiful. I was struck by the fact that they’re from regular people, and that they give such a great insight into their thoughts and life in their time. I wonder what people one hundred years from now will use to understand us?

  • evann

    Every morning I spent 10 to 15 minutes on handwriting practice, printing one day, cursive the next, at the HIGH SCHOOL level. Why? I teach “literacy ESL” — beginning ESL to students whose home countries didn’t give them the opportunity to go to school beyond 5th grade, or, in some cases, at all. In this country, we’re no longer familiar with people who are entirely unschooled. Handwriting that looks like theirs leaves the impression that the person is cognitively disabled. I don’t want their lousy letter formation to stigmatize them. As it is, by the end of the year their handwriting ends up looking quite a bit better than that of their more educated peers. Good — they have enough disadvantages — they should have at least this one small advantage.

  • brainbark

    Because of a physical disability, I use speech-recognition software (NaturallySpeaking) to dictate virtually all of my e-mail and other correspondence (and yes, even this comment). Interestingly, the more I use speech-recognition software, the more I find myself writing in complete sentences; consequently, I use abbreviated e-mail jargon less and less For example, it is much easier for me to dictate “today is November 30, 2006” then “today is 11/30/06”. So I do not really miss cursive writing at all…although, I will admit, it is still a pleasure to receive a card or letter written in cursive handwriting. I believe it is just a matter of time before speech-recognition software is fully integrated into all personal computers and other electronic devices. The computer keyboard will find itself relegated to a museum alongside manual typewriters.

  • John Andrew

    At Uni 48 years ago I couldn’t read my own notes written in cursive and fell back to printing them them as well as everything else from then on. Upon obtaining my degree in Mechanical Engineering, my first job entailed drawing my own plans and my free hand printing became quite good. I’ve never looked back or missed being able to write in cursive.

  • jesusmparks

    I wonder what the loss of the depth charge of seeing your own hand write your own name on a piece of paper will be.

    Isn’t the most human ability to wrote our own names as a source of personal identity at the essence of being human??

  • Jim Cant

    Has the graphologist ever tried this experiment? Get 10 or 12 people who know each other fairly well. Get a writing sample from each and have them analyzed. Then give each of the 10 or 12 folks the analyses and have each match a person to an analysis. Can the graphologist produce a profile of an individual that can be ‘recognized’ as that individual?

  • RobM

    I used to do Calligraphy. Some Certificates, even some wedding invitations.

    This all started when I was trying to make something that had the same (Roman, I know now) ‘style’ as what I had on a magazine article about Napoleon. I was working as a cook at a restaurant and didn’t get home until very late so I needed something quiet to wind down. 😉

    My Handwriting is dependent on the requirements. For work it is one thing, for official things it is another, and personal notes could be printed, or glorious Palmer-Method handwriting. (The nuns did that.) And I’ve never taken a ‘class’, I just poked around with it.

    Now the notes that I get, either with the hearts for dots on an ‘i’ are nearly illegible. But they’ve never been great, have they?



  • dfriend

    After reading Margaret’s book, The Art of the Handwritten Note, I bought a little box of note cards at at Cranes. Now, when an employee does something that is above and beyond the call of duty, I send a little personal note of thanks. People are just blown away! They thank me for thanking them. A year later you will still find these notes pinned to people’s walls. It is an amazing stealth weapon in business. I do the same thing with vendors who put out extra effort. It takes so little effort and it produces such amazing results, I’m surprised that so few people do it. Margaret’s book does nice job of explaining all this.

  • Hans Klein

    If I have a dinner party and someone sends me a handwritten thank you note, you can be sure they’ll be invited back! I don’t care if their handwriting isn’t beautiful.

  • RobM


    Most likely they are pleased, but perhaps they are intimidated enough to post it up as a thank-you, rather than a true blown-away thing?

    On the other hand, you may be on to someting.



  • jtheriault

    This evening was my first opportunity to hear this show since being introduced to it by its Blogger in Chief when we met at BarCamp Manchester a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t until three quarters through that I resigned myself to the fact that the forum for public interaction is not the phonelines, but the blog.

    So here are my thoughts that I was just aching to call in to share.

    I agree with the panelists who say that cursive is changing, not dying. The medium that it’s leaving is the one that is apparently most beloved by those on the show: the letter. Technology is in the process of completely supplanting the written word in communications between individuals. This is because people always want to have a sense deep closeness when they converse with other people, and it take a great deal of discipline, much greater than I think the average person possesses, to understand that low latency between responses and a direct connection to another person’s raw feed of thought is not intimacy. It’s simply instant. Actual intimacy comes from communications that are sincere, not uncensored. However I doubt that truth, except possibly in some distant future, will drive people to ask “how r u?” any less.

    Not all hope is lost though, because there are still two major arenas where technology will never supply anything greater than what handwriting already provides. The first is in face-to-face collaboration. While Powerpoint and graph chart posters are a part of most business meetings, white boards and scratch pads are integral to so many more. This is because they offer true instant gratificaiton. There are no rules, no shortcut keys, no menu options to memorize. There is only your mind, their attention and the white board.

    The other area is in communication to yourself. I won’t speak so absolutely on this one, but for myself I find it impossible to properly organize my thoughts in the rigid demands of a piece of software. Even when the software was written for thought organization, including a program I wrote for myself to do exactly this, it still cannot possibly hope to represent every product of my imagination in a way more intuitive than how I would commit it to paper.

    It is this last thought that I want to use to refute the position of the gentleman who associated ADD and lack of hand-writing. Allow me to myself forward as anecdotal eveidence to the contrary. I was diagnosed as having ADHD (not only can I not concentrate, I’m apparently excited about it) at the very start of what will eventually be called an epidemic. However from before that diagnosis to this very day, I organize my thoughts best, to the benefit of my professional and personal endeavors, when I write them down. I have two three by four foot white boards in my home office to prove it.

    Writing is not going away, because it is still the best technology for any number of tasks. The real question in regards to cursive is will people accept this and enjoy and take pride in their writing, or will they regard it as a chore. Until tonight’s radio program I was solidly a matter of the latter camp, but now I’m considering finding a handwriting coach to help me change my perspective.

  • Yoav

    can you help me out? I’m an immigrant, in the US for almost 20 years, English is my second language. I can type a fine note on the computer, as well as read one, but can barely READ hand written notes. Nor do I know the difference bt. long hand and short hand.



  • rocksea5555

    At age 60, my handwiritng is shot, not from age but from decades of keyboard use–typewriter in college and graduate school, then computers at work, home, the bank. My carpal tunnel is so bad, I can barely write any more. It makes me sad. As a medievalist, I study only handwiritten documents, and here I am unable to write a brief Christmas card…

  • pappy_leydon

    To the point:

    Wasn’t it the ballpoint pen, rather than the computer, that did in cursive?

    When I learned longhand in the late 70s it was already pointless, having been designed for fountain pen (and inkwell). Not that I’m against either, but has anyone invented a cursive hand for the contemporary pen?

  • Malachi McCormick

    I’ve run a small press here in Staten island since 1980. My books are all handmade, and the originals are all done in calligraphy. My biggest book, “Colum Cille”, about St. Columba –himself a great calligrapher and book man– is 30,000 words long. The calligraphy for it took me over two months. (The book won First Prize in the Bumbershoot Bookfair a few years ago –the only problem was that it was First Prize in the Letterpress section! I took that as a compliment, but was never really able to brag about it.)

    I’ve listened to your program with fascination and would have liked to call in but could find no phone number.

    A few points I would contribute:

    Cursive (ie “running” hand was the wonderful Italian Renaissance invention, sloping so it could be written with more speed than Columba’s breathtaking Uncial.

    The best calligraphy is “invisible” in the sense that nothing about it gets in the way of reading the text…

    There’s lots more that I will keep for another time. If people wish they can see my books at

    Thank you. Your show is the best thing (one of the few best things on radio, and Christopher is wonderful.)

  • Jae Gruenke

    I’m struck by the difference in the rhythm of the conversation in this show from how it usually sounds. Christopher Lydon’s rhythm of speech have slowed and lengthened in response to the slower, longer lines of thought and expression of his guests. This show normally sounds very email; tonight it sounds almost cursive.

    There’s a lot to the graphologist’s comments about cursive, rhythmic brain function, and ADD. If the rhythm of this show isn’t enough to demonstrate it, there’s the work my fiance, a classical musician, does using rhythm and movement as a form of therapy with childeren with developmental disabilities. The idea that learning to function in rhythm builds the ability to remember and predict and is foundational to all human function is an idea I see play out daily — and this is something we learn through our interactions with the world.

  • Hopeglory

    Call me an anomoly, call me a maveric. I’m a forty-one year-old male and I can say unabashedly that I have the best, most legible cursive that I have read from anyone whom I work with, and most script that I read is not as good as mine. I don’t mean to brag, and I do many, many things poorly. Cursive script is one thing I do very well. I don’t know what the so-called “Palmer” method is, and when I write in cursive script I do not think of my grandmother, even though her maiden name is Palmer. And I have seen her handwriting and must confess that I her handriting is not as good as mine is, although my mother’s script is more flowing and neater than mine, so my mother has me beat. I enjoy handwriting more than typing, but as I write for my work (residential counseling) if I write twenty notes a night by hand, I feel the pain. The computer is the great leveler of the writing cramp condition. By the way Bill Clinton penned the handwritten note. Please don’t send me any T-shirt. I don’t make enough money to contribute to my local NPR station (WNYC), and I have a ton of T-shirts. Do I have to spell it out for you? I DON”T WANT ANY T-SHIRT!!!! My only regret is that I could not write this note in a cursive script, and I had to use this keyboard to write the words on the screen.

  • pappy_leydon

    Hey Malachi, thanks for the historical prespective. As a student of medieval literature (including Irish), I do appreciate a nice, clear hand with unconnected letters.

    By the way, if you are listening on the radio in NYC like me, the show is on tape (or whatever digital medium they use now) from this morning. Alas.

  • billfalls

    The comment on the program about handwritten text becoming unintelligible was no exaggeration. Here’s a historical antecedent:

    Somewhere around the 15th century in Spain, before the arrival of printed books, the script known as “Gothic” fell out of fashion, replaced by “Roman” calligraphy. Within a generation almost no one remained who could understand Gothic writing, and books using it became wastepaper (or -parchment). Few had been transcribed into the new hand. The few Gothic pages that survive were most likely saved by being used in book bindings or because something written on the other side of the sheet was considered worth keeping.

    I wonder if the old-timers of that time lamented the passing of their art and the ability to read their books.

  • Hopeglory

    Just an adendum to my last comment. I have been using a ball-point pen to write all my cursive script. Some people blam the ball-point pen for the demise of pen-personship. I say “haberdash!” I have never liked the fountain pen, and you can use a ball-point pen to write your cursive script any-ole day. The ball-point pen conspiracy is just another excuse to try to explain why people don’t handwrite anything any more. Ball-point pens may be a modern, new-fangled convience compared to the quill. But they usuallly don’t leak, and you can buy them anywhere. These pens do not impede the handwriting process, even though the final output of ball point pens is not as eligant as the quill.

  • Chris W.

    I enjoyed this discussion on “Cursive” very much. I am a Creative Director and work with type faces/fonts in most of my waking life. To write in cursive is to actually utilize the brain’s ability to formulate thought as penmanship, not mere writing. I learned the Palmer Method and have witnessed first hand it’s demise at the front line… the school desks of my 7 and 9 yr. old children. My pleas for a penmanship driven exercise each day, has fallen on deaf and underfinanced schoolsystem ears.

    To my main point… To look at cursive you look fist to penmanship:

    I am a collector of antique inkwells and I have enjoyed all the aspects associated with early handwriting. To really understand why cursive was and is no more, you only need to look as far as early writing tools. In order to write a word with a dip-pen with a flat nib, it was essential to keep the pen in motion on the paper or there would be bleeds. Diping a pen for each letter was counter-productive and prone to spills, so linked letters proved beneficial. In the Victorian age, the quality of penmanship and stationary was actually a benchmark of status.

    During the 20s the dip pen got an upgrade; the Reservoir Pen. However, like it’s predicessor, it functioned the same way. sending a flowing fluid down a nib with the same written results. Yet, As an earlier commenter has mentioned, it was the U.S.Post Office that ultimately quashed penmanship. It was their demand for a better transportable smudge free, and self-contained writing tool that spawned the Ball Point Pen. No longer did you have to keep the point on the paper, nor worry about drips to write. At this time the Art Deco and Empire style block letters, used in advertising, were influencing everything. People were now emulating the look, and writing in this block form.

    Another note about Cursive… the shape of the nib of the dip-pen held at the correct angle allowed for variation in line weight, adding a certain panache to a well penned letter. The ball point pen can only make a that drab uniform weight line.

    On a final note… at least Polly isn’t getting her pig tails dipped in the inkwell any more!

  • crank

    With all due respect, this topic seems as if Christopher Lydon might be interviewing the maker of elegant horse and buggy carriages about 1910. Handwriting is nothing but a communication technology, and as with all technologies, as improvements are made and new methods wrought, the old ones fall by the wayside. What we now call cursive is a product of thousands of years of changes in writing technology, from the stylus to the quill to the ballpoint, each change bringing the technology of writing available to a wider audience. Now that keyboards and voice recognition are here, those with visual or physical impairments who cannot write by hand are now brought onto a level playing field with everybody else. I see nothing to mourn and much to celebrate in the passing of cursive.

  • Ruthie

    Maybe this has already been covered…Bill Clinton wrote that excerpt provided above. He’s a lefty. [do I get a t-shirt? 😉 ]

  • samuel

    Notice that one of the last vestigages of handwriting were handwritten logs in the military. They have computerized it now too. I did improve my handwriting even though it was block capital.

  • Rosamond Haupt

    My mother won first place in a Schaeffer handwriting contest. I won first place in a Palmer handwriting contest. It rather irks me that I have to send this via type face rather than in cursive. Now I’m looking for a calligraphy class and hope it will be a good place to meet other cursive writers who feel strongly about handwriting memos, notes and letters whenever possible.

    I feel that cursive should continue to be taught whether as a part of English or as part of an art class in the lower classes in school.

  • David Weinstein

    A few remarks, a contradiction and a question: I suffered from moderate dyslexia growing up. Needless to say learning to read and to write were an ordeal for me. I never learned the Palmer method or another but I do rememeber my third grade teacher stopping me as I was about to board the bus home, and relating in what I perceived to be a sort of paniced concern that I needed to practice my handwriting, particularly practicing the difference between a ‘p’ and a ‘q.’ All I could do was board the bus as quickly as possible, assuring her through the window that I would make the necessary effort, hoping for a swift departure of the transport to speed me away from my shame.

    I never could manage any semblance of a pretty handwriting so I had to settle for a utilitarian style. In my late teens however I realized that I had an aptitude and interest in calligraphy, particualrly letters written large. Later I practiced Hebrew calligraphy. This apparant contradiction has something to do with speed. Handwriting was invented to speed up the writing process as compared to block lettering. The calligraphy I enjoyed was block lettering.

    In any case I am a professional writer now. My fear that writing on a word precessor instead of a legal pad would somehow crimp my creativity turned out to be a supersition. In fact the editing capability, and, more dramatically, the spell check feature (rememeber the dyslexia) of word processing has made creative writing easier without crimping inspiration. Where the new process of writing really had a dramatic effect is when I returned to school to get an advanced degree. Computer word processing helped to vastly improve my paper writing. Of course all those years as a writer helped me to learn to organize my thoughts and to find apt expression of them. But this is one person who will not miss the typewriter.

    All this remains true in longform writing. But I cannot imagine writing poetry on a computer. I need the pen in my hand and to touch it to paper to write poetry at all. Certainly this has to do with the rhythm, sound and image of poetry and the intergration of all these features somewhere in the brain that is just incompatible, at least for me, with the keyboard.

    I am one who has experienced the pleasure of an exchange of letters with other human beings, the epistolary relationship ib both friendship and romance. This practice, this art is all but vanished. In a certain nostalgia, I would say that we are less fully human for its absence. There was a self discovery and deepening of bonds in the epistolary realationship not to speak of the attention to and development of language.

    But are relationships any worse now that the epistolarly realtionship has gone by the wayside like buggy rides into the country or the parlor discussion? I think not. Certaianly less romantic. But think how tortured those nineteenth century lovers were, at least in those French, Russain and English romanrtic novels we love. Perhaps in the accelerated, to-the-point, utilitarian e-mailing and text messaging friends and acquaintances get to the point. And lovers get real, have the opportunity to work things out.

    Can we hope for the best of both worlds, rapid and far reaching communication online but when we get together we can enjoy the art of verbal communication – sort of the template for ROS? Or have we just become speeded up and numbed out to our respective humanity?

  • Ozymandias

    Chris made reference to the “Coca-Cola” cursive logo. Whilst corporate identity is a costly confection contrived by sophisticated graphic geniuses in concert with marketing mandarins these days, originator of the ubiquitous beverage John Pemberton’s accountant, Frank Robinson, is credited with naming the product, and the famous logo is said to be in Mr. Robinson’s distinctive handwriting. When a bean counter’s penmanship has such astoundingly pervasive and enduring impact (ledger domain legerdemain? ) who can doubt the potential power of the written word?

  • William22

    As the father of a child with Cerebral Palsy, I have a creative intelligent little man locked inside a body that doesn’t work too well. For the guest of the program to claim have the ability to predict honesty or loyalty or other personality inferences based upon legibility is folly and crass at best.

  • Neat cursive is too slow. I have the patience to maintain a handwritten blog but I only use cursive occasionally.

  • zensparrow

    My handwriting is a combo of cursive and printing. I use email to communicate quickly, but handwriting to reflect – in my journal or in letters to my friends who live in monastery, without computer access. In my experience, pen and paper – whether cursive or printing or both – lend an intimacy to thoughts and a meditative quality to writing. One of my correspondents, a prisoner in San Quentin, writes the most beautiful cursive. You can tell it’s a meditation for him.

  • Yoav, please contact me. I have taught quite a few people how to read cursive handwriting even if they didn’t also want to write that way …

  • mimsong

    here’s news of the death of another obsolete technique, morse code:

    we won’t be getting such an announcement for cursive, because writing is not regulated as radio is; morse the pity!

  • cjuma

    Writing is not about creating letters, which you can do with any electromechanical devices such as computers; it is the ultimate expression of our creative being. A cursive writing club will do more for our culture than most of the elite sports put together. Through pen and paper we can touch the souls of others in ways we cannot with their lesser substitutes.

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