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.

33 replies
  1. MBL
    MBL says:

    The seventh paragraph begs to link to theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/08/ballpoint-pens-object-lesson-history-handwriting/402205/ which details why cursive is natural when using a fountain pen or quill, but less so with either a ballpoint or #2 pencil. I have always mixed the two sometimes within the same word. The article starts out linking to Bic’s “PLEDGE to FIGHT FOR MY WRITE by encouraging the act of handwriting in my home and throughout my community because writing makes us ALL awesome!” The Bic page links to wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323644904578272151551627948

    Call me an archaic, pretentious grammarian born two decades too late because I will always hear “whom” in my head when it is the appropriate word. I may not always use it, but my brain will do a little glitch when I say “Who are you looking for?” if the person to whom I am speaking would be put off by “whom.” (Whoops, I just naturally typed “to whom I am speaking.”) And I am freaking out at the misuse of I/me, we/us, etc. I understand the misuse of objective for nominative as it sounds more casual, but think that using nominative for objective “It was given to my husband and I.” sounds pretentiously ignorant. It happens ALL the time in scripts for television and movies with educated characters. So, if it happens a lot, does this mean they are now interchangeable and our language will become even less precise and more confusing?

    I hated cursive in school and always lost points for penmanship which I thought sucked. (Both the point loss and actual penmanship.) Sadly, dysgraphia wasn’t a “thing” in my day. My 10 year old signs her name in cursive and can read some, but has done very, very little practice with it.

    I wonder if “cursive translator” will become a profession–someone who translates family recipes and correspondence for future generations. :D

  2. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    The only argument for continuing cursive through school that has given me pause is that I read somewhere it’s sort of like a milestone for the brain. When I thought more about it, though, isn’t everything new we learn to do a milestone for the brain, really? Maybe I’m being really simplistic here, but your argument makes just as much sense to me.
    Sarah M

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      When my grandparents retired and moved out of state, I became the lucky girl who often got cards and letters from my grandmother. English was not her native language, nor was latin script her native alphabet. When I read her letters in her beautiful handwriting, I could hear her voice and see her face. Her script became part of the image of her that I keep in my heart.

      As she aged, her writing reflected her shaky hand. Her love flowed through and I could feel her using all her strength to give me something….of herself. She happened to speak five languages fluently, and she learned them all by writing with her hand.

      I am not bashing technology or dismissing how much more we can do with it, but I am grateful for my grandmother who loved to put pen to paper. I still find her cards and read them with delight. An old email is nice, too, but it isn’t the same. Not at all.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Writing and typing are two different brain functions. Writing is better for deep learning and memorization, apparently. It would make sense, then, that cursive is another skill that aids the brain in a major way.

      Side note: I’m not sure what would replace the benefits of writing in the modern age, as the renaissance led to expanded literacy and thus the modern age. What is needed in a post-modern world?

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Cursive is a human invention with a lifespan. There is no way it’s necessary or even particularly useful for cognitive development.

      Hallelujah to the end of cursive training!

  3. Jana
    Jana says:

    The connection between writing and learning is pretty well-documented; I’m surprised that you haven’t researched more about that Penelope! Writing in cursive is shown to accelerate existing benefits of handwriting which include knowledge integration, fine motor development, cognition, and executive function.

    There are a lot of benefits to cursive that are directly related to learning and cognition, and the insistence by many (including policymakers) that it is an outdated relic shows some ignorance of the research into its benefits. There is a reason Montessori and Waldorf schools teach it from the beginning.

    Cursive was very helpful to my daughter who just didn’t really get formation in manuscript writing, despite strong efforts. She reversed 50% or more of her letters. Rather than continue to see her struggle, I decided to remediate these issues using cursive. It was a great choice that made our issues disappear practically overnight.

    The age of cursive is over, yes, but there is not a lot of evidence that it is a good thing.

      • Betsy
        Betsy says:

        But why not both? Schools have a limited amount of time so they have to choose. Another argument for non-traditional education: my children will have time to do both.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Can you point to some studies that show the link between cursive and learning or cognitive development? My google skills are failing me.

      I would love to see a study that compares the cognitive impact of learning to draw vs. learning cursive. I’m sure that study doesn’t exist.

      It’s great that cursive helped your daughter, and can help kids with writing/reading challenges to develop more motor/writing skills, but that’s not an argument for teaching it as a matter of requirement to all kids.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I have seen this research as well. However you can point to many things as connected to brain development. Learning an instrument. Learning to draw. Learning ballet. Etc. Just because something helps brain development doesn’t mean everyone should do it.

        Penelope

        • Julia
          Julia says:

          This is where I was going. I was looking for the research because I wanted to see if it compares cursive to no-cursive, or cursive to drawing or some other symbol-making activity. My hunch is that cursive itself isn’t the point, but the more ways the human mind practices rendering ideas in symbolic forms, the better developed it is.

  4. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:

    I will never forget my elementary school teachers exhorting us to master cursive because “all your teachers will require it in middle/high school”.

    It was a lie. No one required it. No one even mentioned it.

    I suspect if I wrote in cursive, I would have pissed those teachers off. It’s harder to read. They might have asked me to stop as a courtesy.

    Just another in a long list of BS spewed by the school system!

  5. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Working as a fashion designer, we often had to add construction notes to all of our sketches. And since these sketches were faxed (ha ha!) to the sample makers in China, the notes had to be as clear as possible.

    So of course no one used cursive handwriting! That would have been idiotic. I think the only time I ever see cursive in a professional context is when doctor’s scribble out a prescription. And really, they should know better.

  6. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    How many of us grew up with parents who tried to recreate their childhood context and reacted with fear and loathing when modern context had moved on? Show of hands?

    Yet look at us, still functioning collectively as society. Hm.

    My oldest son, now 30, refused to write in cursive and I kind of rode his butt about it. But by the time my next sons, now 18 and 16, got to the same place in their lives, I had gotten sanguine with the changes.

  7. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    I see cursive all the time at my job in a nursing home: via residents, visitors and volunteers (of all ages for the latter two groups). Also, most of my relatives write in cursive (even some of the engineers, when not doing engineering tasks).

    A while ago, I shared a story on this blog about a private-college student volunteer at my job who couldn’t read the envelopes for the letters and cards she was to deliver to residents because most were written in cursive. I asked her why. She told me, “They don’t teach cursive in school anymore.” I had to help her read the names on the envelopes. What the…?

    Later, as the college student was leaving, she said a resident asked her to read the letter she had delivered because the resident couldn’t see well. The college student couldn’t read the letter because it was in cursive.

    I dislike cutting ties with the older generations (which, per my example, is what not being able to read cursive can do). It’s bad enough that many are locked away when they are old.

    I also disagree with the undercurrent belief that old ways and old people don’t provide value just because we have some cool tools in technology and plastic surgery. To state the obvious: not everything in real-life is guided by, or relevant to, technology.

    I’m so glad commenters are pointing out the developmental importance of learning to write in cursive. In the reading curriculum called The Logic of English, there is the option to do the work in either cursive or printing. The reading curriculum called Alphaphonics also points to the importance of cursive.

    Here’s a good article about why to teach cursive first: logicofenglish.com/2-uncategorised/122-why-teach-cursive-first

  8. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Handwriting, even printing….is for dinosaurs!

    BTW, I think it was John Holt (though I could be wrong) who insisted that printing was much, much faster than cursive. I was surprised at the assertion, but convinced by his argument.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      surprisingly despite the abundance of graphic design apps and programs more then 50% of graphic designers use pen and paper to develop new ideas. No, pen and paper are not out of date – it is functionally different for the brain to write by hand (no matter the writing style) then it is to type.

      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        Yes most designers and artists continue to use pen and paper to sketch out ideas – when we make 2D work. And taking it a step further, the best sculptors and clothing designers I’ve met don’t just sketch out their ideas on paper, they fold paper into 3D designs. Working in the round is a completely different way of seeing.

  9. Sarah Pierzchala
    Sarah Pierzchala says:

    I was “unschooled” in the 70’s, but my mom tried to teach me cursive—-despite having great fine-motor skills and eye-hand so-ordination, I always absolutely hated my handwriting because it looked so fat and childlike. When I started community college, I took calligraphy and discovered cursive italic; for the first time, I loved my handwriting and felt much more confident and adult!

    For my own kids, I’ve “exposed” them to a Charlotte Mason-based cursive italic program, but don’t insist on mastery. I’ve noticed that their handwriting does appear far more “adult” than you would expect for their age, so that’s nice.

    BTW—I’ve followed this great cursive debate for a couple of years and find it telling that the folks who are upset that the next generation can’t read cursive and therefore will be functionally illiterate seem unaware that these same kids don’t seem to have any trouble reading elaborate graffiti tags or different graphic design fonts in advertising or on their favorite websites…maybe it’s a question of being motivated by content?

  10. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    I was happy to allow my son to skip learning cursive. He writes quickly and legibly in printing mode. I can’t believe it’s come back to bite us! Twice.
    He’s a college freshman this year, and decided – during registration!!! – to study Russian. Guess what. Russian is ONLY written in cursive. His homework takes his twice as long to complete while he learns to write in cursive.
    The other incident was kind of weird. He had to sign his federal loan papers himself (18 – adult, now). His papers were rejected by the agency that manages the program because he printed his name (that’s what his signature looks like, folks) instead of using cursive. He pointed out that that WAS his signature, but they wouldn’t release the funds until he provided a cursive signature. It turned into kind of a thing.
    The conventional wisdom that assumes you can use an x or a smiley face as your signature. . . turns out, not so much.

  11. Emily
    Emily says:

    Another benefit to writing in cursive or printing (rather than typing) might be better grades for some students. In law school, one of our professors mentioned he thought students received higher grades when their exams were handwritten rather than typed because professors had a harder time reading the exams and probably gave students the benefit of the doubt. This was just his opinion based on his own experience, of course, but after I heard that, I made sure to hand write my answers rather than type them. My grades went up, but I don’t know if this was a result of better mastery of the material or receiving the benefit of the doubt from the professors.

  12. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I can’t believe this is a point of discussion.

    This is how far removed I am from cursive being taught or not taught: I didn’t even know it was a thing.

    In informal interviews people have asked me about my proficiency with computers. I can’t code. So I feel a bit sheepish. Then it’s clear to me that they are asking about every day computer use and I am not sure how to measure such proficiency. I have to tell them that I grew up with computers and I have never had a job without computers. And as much as people love Excel…it’s a bit like cursive. For everyday stuff, there’s probably an app for that and it’s much more efficient.

    I don’t understand cursive. And I have terrible handwriting. Because I type most of everything. As much as I love to write for the brain exercise I just can’t read what I handwrite.

  13. T.smith
    T.smith says:

    Many of us in our community are currently involved collecting signatures of registered voters to rescind a city ordinance, passed very quietly this summer, that will allow high rise urban density (apartments) development that hasn’t existed before now. 900 units, minimum 4 stories are being planned right behind our houses. We live in one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the U.S. Our petition is a legal document, each registered voter has to sign their name in cursive and print, we have to read the the recinsion to them before they sign. Each page of signatures has to be notarized. If any citizen should ever need to fight their local, state or federal government on any issue, they had better know how to sign their name in cursive or their ability to maintain their freedom will be greatly diminished.

  14. T.smith
    T.smith says:

    Also, every fellow neighbor who signed when I walked the other night, of which there were Chinese, Asian-Indian, white, and African-American, registered voters all, signed their names in cursive.

  15. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Do you think elite private schools are going to stop teaching cursive? Of course not. Just one more socioeconomic indicator to seperate wheat from chaff.

  16. Petits Homeschoolers
    Petits Homeschoolers says:

    I am French. In my country all the children learn cursives. Script is in the books, but all of us write in cursives. Like in germany, Spain, italy, africa, russia…

    My son had an Australian pen-pal last year. He was so surprised to see her handwriting: “look at that! she writes like a computer!”. I explained him that the script is the normal writing now in the english countries.
    Of course he was able to read and to understand it. But on the other side, the little australian girl couldn’t read my son’s cursives! She had never learnt it so she just couldn’t understand the letters of a french little boy. Her mother had to read them for her, because she had learnt it when she was a Child. So sad isn’t it?

  17. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Kids who are not taught cursive never learn to read cursive. As a Reading Specialist in grades 7-12 , I have to teach cursive in order for my students to be able to read important historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, etc. Sure, there are typed versions everywhere of most historical documents, but it’s important that the students view it at it’s source. I teach them to question remakes and reinterpretations. Also, it’s visual literacy as well. John Hancock ‘s signature on that document does not carry the emotion in typing like it does in cursive. Cursive is a literacy skill.

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