Apr 8, 2013

The End of Cursive

Recently in a doctor's waiting room while flicking through a National Geographic I found a little article about the decline of cursive writing ('Disappearing Act', National Geographic, July 2012).

I learned cursive writing in school in the US where I went to primary school in 1979, 1980 and 1981 (Grades 4 and 5 and a bit of Grade 6).

Palmer script as I learned it in the US as a child.
I still remember it perfectly.

Before that I'd been learning the simpler 'Victorian Modern Cursive' that is taught in schools in Australia - my kids are using it now.

Victorian Modern Cursive, from the back
of my daughters' school writing books

On my first day of school in LA we were given a writing assignment, and I looked at the curly cursive letters on the board and freaked. I put my hand up and when my teacher came over I whispered, in shame and panic, that I couldn't do that kind of writing. She told me it was fine and to just use my normal writing. So naturally instead of doing that I invented some weird hybrid between the writing I knew and what I could see on the board, and I decided that I would be using the same writing as everyone else by the next day.

I don't write like this naturally anymore, but it easily comes back to me:

In 1982 I started school in New Zealand. I was in Form Two (grade six equivalent) and I think from memory they were doing some sort of cursive, but I was allowed to stick with my American writing which I did, though again I changed it a bit to fit in. I dropped the curly capitals for straight printed capitals, and I gradually dropped my cursive r's and s's for versions closer to print.

Once I was in high school, I don't think anyone cared how we wrote, as long as it was legible. At university, we took notes by hand in all lectures and tutorials, and all our essays were handwritten. I could write for hours before my hand cramped up, unlike now.

I now write in my own confused scrawl.

I write in Victorian Modern if I'm writing with my kids, but I still find it a funny, ugly-looking script. I always think it looks weird when I see adults writing it (people my age and younger). It looks like children's writing. And can I share how much I hate the lower-case p?

My kids are using the non-joined up version, and it's probably the only version they'll ever use.

These days, more schools are dropping cursive, as there is no longer any need for it. I'd be surprised if kids growing up now ever use handwriting in future for anything other than very short simple notes.

If you grew up learning cursive, your first reaction might be sadness or outrage at this calamity, but you would be wrong. You might be surprised to learn (as I was) that cursive only came about because it was the easiest way of writing with a quill and ink, to lift the pen off the page as little as possible. Ever since the printing press, cursive has been on a decline in favor of block printing (National Geographic, July 2012).

Even my American Palmer script is a simplified version which was no doubt reviled in its day. My mother writes her name in lovely old-fashioned cursive prettier than mine, and my grandmother used to have even lovelier handwriting.

Spencerian script - via Wikipedia Commons.
Beautiful but am I alone in associating this with
drafty old school rooms and slaps with a wooden ruler?

So farewell, beautiful cursive. I'll miss you sometimes. You've given me some good memories. But times change and so does writing. If it didn't then where would we be?


  1. I was taught the Palmer (didn't know it had a name, so you've learned me summat today), in year three (aged eight) and still remember it too. Like you, by high school it had been abandoned for 'print' style and only used on birthday cards to my grandparents. I wonder if it will ever be popular again, esp considering the reemergence of crafts like sewing and handmade cards, etc?

    1. That's an interesting thought - maybe. When I was a kid I had a calligraphy set which I loved. I always used it for cards, and for addressing envelopes that my hand-written letters went in.
      Some years ago I got briefly into scrap booking as a hobby and I enjoyed using hand-writing to write about the photos in the scrap books. But even in scrapbooks a lot of people prefer to use letter stickers or type up their writing and paste it in. And now it's all being abandoned in favour of photo books done on the computer. So who knows?



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