I learned about breaking rules from William Safire. He wrote On Language, a column for the New York Times. I felt really grown up reading the New York Times in college, but the truth is all I read was that and the Book Review.
They are sort of opposites. The Book Review is the living literary canon reviewing new authors to determine how well they fit into established genres. William Safire spent his time interfering with established rules for language.
People wrote in to him, like people wrote to Ann Landers, but instead of complaints about wedding plans or father-in-laws, Safire fielded complaints about gerunds and split infinitives. He declared, almost always, that language is living and if the majority of people have discarded the word whom, then it’s for certain that only people born before 1950 use the word. It’s dead to the following generations. Or, if it’s alive, it’s a sign of a pretentious grammarian on the verge of being so archaic as to be incomprehensible.
Safire’s Supreme Court of Language is a lot like the US Supreme Court of Law; if public opinion swings far enough, often it’s the de facto rule. And I like that.
Because now I can see that happening throughout history. The only verified handwriting we have from William Shakespeare is six signatures and maybe the words on his will, “By me,” which amount to only thirteen letters. This is a big issue because his signatures are all in the secretary hand, but the fashion of the day was to use italic hand.
There are big discussions about what other handwriting might be from Shakespeare. The reason for this is that Shakespeare lived in the midst of an intellectual sea change: After the invention of the printing press, people started writing in vernacular rather than Latin, and because of this, people needed a more universal way to write. Italic hand came from the secular books that were easier to read than old church documents. The history of handwriting up to 1700 is the democratization of learning.
We developed cursive to write faster with a quill. There are visible loops, which require less careful penmanship, and there are connected letters so you don’t have to lift the quill. People began printing when we started to write with pens and pencils. We are at a time like Shakespeare where we are in-between cursive and printing.
But we are at the end of that in-between time. If you look at history, times when there are two types of writing are relatively short lived. We live in a world where information is high-speed and we type almost everything, and it’s clear that the next generation will not write cursive.
There must have been a cacophony of grouchiness over the end of secretary similar to today’s grousing over the obsolescence of cursive. It’s hard for people to let go of tradition and move on.
William Safire spent his life beating down the grammarians so we could let language evolve. Understanding his tirades is what gives me the courage to tell my kids they don’t have to learn cursive writing. And, in fact, I often have to read it to them when an (invariably) old person uses cursive.
If you want to share my confidence to let kids skip cursive and just print everything, read William Safire. If you worry that your kids will miss out learning this archetype of education, consider that Thomas Edison was already mixing cursive writing with manuscript writing in the early 1900s and he did just fine for himself.
It’s no surprise that I read William Safire for decades, but my appetite for the book review ended quickly. I am never going to be an enforcer of the status quo. But you already knew that.