The Dubious Art of Writing

Today, I was reading an article on how cursive writing is dying out. Many of the comments lament this fact while others take a “so what?” attitude. This got me thinking about the subject.

The first question that springs to many people’s minds is, “What is this cursive writing thing anyway?” Fortunately, that’s a simple enough question. Cursive writing is a form of writing designed to minimize the number of times one must lift the pen from the paper when writing. Thus, where possible, all letters are written with a single “stroke” and all letters within a word are joined. As a result, the majority of words are written with a single long pen stroke.

Cursive writing was pretty much required to have any sort of speed combined with neatness when writing was still done with quills and ink pots. One could easily end up with large blots of ink at the beginning or end of a pen stroke. However, with the advent of pencils, ballpoint pens, and so on, there is no longer any need to avoid ink blots at the start or end of pen strokes.

I will concede that cursive writing is often somewhat faster than printing, even with modern writing equipment. However, my own observations show that messy printing is often much easier to read than messy cursive. I also notice that, at least for myself, when I concenrate on legibility, most of the speed advantage of cursive disappears. Admittedly, this is likely because I haven’t made the effort to practice truly legible cursive to the point that it becomes second nature so this is not a fair test of cursive versus printing.

Now, there are several arguments against letting cursive die out. First is that it will make historical records inaccessible to the majority of the population. This argument is easily refuted, however. Historical records are irrelevant to the majority of the population. Those that wish to read them can easily learn to read cursive without spending the long hours learning to write it. This is much the same as learning archaic dialects or old languages to read old documents. Furthermore, as fewer and fewer records are kept in cursive, this problem will disappear. Since the majority of relevant historical records are probably only from the past two or three decades, after that length of time, there will likely be no difficultly experienced by those who cannot read cursive.

Another argument is that we are somehow less as a society for the loss of cursive writing. Proponents of this argument insist that cursive is an art that must be preserved, as though pretty writing is somehow important to society. This is a silly argument. Except in calligraphy circles, the point of writing in any form is communication. It always has been. It makes absolutely zero difference whether the writing is pretty or not as long as it is legible. If it can be read relatively easily by the target audience, it matters not what format it takes. The key point there is that the target audience matters. That audience is usually not future generations.

Some make the case that learning cursive writing improves fine motor control as well as hand-eye coordination. This argument I am willing to accept since writing is a very precise operation. However, it seems to me that insisting on correct printing could accomplish the same goal. In fact, precise and correct printing requires even finer motor control due to the fact that multiple pen strokes are required for many letters. Even so, I will accept that there is some value in learning cursive if only to expose the student to a different form of fine motor control.

In the modern world, the argument for posterity weakens substantially. The majority of records and documents intended for posterity are typewritten in one form or another. This means that handwriting does not even enter into the picture. It is highly unlikely that the typewritten material of today will be illegible to the generations that follow. Witness how books printed even two centuries ago are often perfectly legible, if not understandable. The precise presentation starts to be come less of an issue than the changing language itself as time passes.

The advent of extermely portable computing devices disguised as telephones has further eroded the need for efficient handwriting. Email has largely replaced letters and memoranda in both business and personal contexts. Text messaging and email have largely replaced telegrams for quick notes. These technologies are not hardwritten but rather typewritten in one form or another. Indeed, as portable computing becomes ever more ubiquitous, there will be less and less need for efficient handwriting.

And now for an observation that very few bring up. Since literacy among the general population became common, the majority of people simply do not take the time to learn to write neatly. The handwriting of the general population borders on illegible at best, and this is not a new phenomenon. So cursive writing has not been what its advocates claim it is for a very long time.

In light of the goals of writing and the modern context, I find no case for cursive writing to be preserved artificially. Printed letters are perfectly adequate for expressing thoughts when fancy typewriters and other gadgets are unavailable or impractical. (Indeed, printed letters came long before cursive!) Even today, most people can read printed letters. Furthermore, since most handwritten text is not intended for public consumption, it hardly matters how it is written, does it? Remember, if the intended audience can read it, then it is clearly sufficient for the task. That intended audience is often only the original writer these days.

I will close with one final observation. Perhaps the magnitude of the argument is partially because we are currently on the cusp of the transition from largely handwritten communication to largely typewritten communicaiton. The older people who grew up before the advent of email and text messaging remember how important clear, efficient writing was. The younger people, who have never known a world without computers and text messaging, simply see no point in learning a technique they have no use for. Given time, this debate will simply disappear. (Incidentally, I count myself among the older people who had to learn cursive writing to get by, though I and my peers are nearly the last to clearly fall into that category.)

My conclusion: let the general population use modern typewritten technology,hand printed letters, and any other communication technology they choose. Leave the preservation of cursive writing to the calligraphers and historians who will do the tradition more justice than the general population ever could.

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