The Weekly Letter – C is for Cursive

handwriting sampleNational Handwriting Day is this week and once again the great cursive war has sprung into the news.  What is this cursive term over which people have become so polarized?  When most speak today of cursive they refer to the handwriting of America’s late 19th and early twentieth century –  full of cumbersome loops and unwieldy connections.   Not so. The term cursive has been around for centuries and simply means connected.

The script known as American Cursive is a part of our history.  Like high button shoes, corsets and the Model T, it had its place in history, but not in our classrooms today. It’s good that we study it just as we study other scripts and appreciate its part in our culture; but it’s not a particularly efficient or practical way to write, especially in this age of digital recognition programs.

Across history, scripts have come and gone according to the needs of the people.  We owe our alphabet to the Phoenicians.  The Greeks added the vowels and transformed our writing to left to right.  The Romans adapted and brought lettering to a quality previously unknown.  Tools mattered. The chisel, the pen and the brush all contributed to evolving lettering styles.   Scripts spread as peoples migrated across Europe among which developed cursive hands. Developed for economy and speed, the written letters often became a book-hand and visa versa.  Beauty and practicality intertwined as those who wrote books strove for both.

It’s unsure whether the Caroline minuscule rose from a cursive or mixture of cursive and half-uncial, but its use spread and, in fact, is still relevant to lower-case letters in use in England today.  Gothic scripts derived from the Caroline, their use fading away with the Renaissance and the arrival of the printing press, eventually culminating in the arrival of La Operina, Arrighi’s writing manual for the cancellaresca or Chancery hand.

Literacy flourished and so did handwriting manuals and copy-books – round hands, italic hands, business hands, flourished scripts, print scripts and cursive hands.  William Morris, Edward Johnston, Graily Hewitt, Marion Richardson and Alfred Fairbanks all influenced handwriting in England.  Here in the United States, the contributions of Spencer, Palmer and other penmen cannot be ignored. Handwriting was/is important.

With the advent of the typewriter and the computer, there is no doubt that the daily use of handwriting has diminished.  So where does that leave us today as we explore handwriting in the 21st century?  I think it puts us in the same place as people in early Rome, Italy during the Renaissance or in the UK in the early twentieth century.  Handwriting needs to reflect the culture of the people who are using it. Just as the Gothic scripts faded with the advent of the Renaissance, it’s time for American Cursive’s swan song.  Where architecture, furniture,cars, or clothing reflect an age,  American Cursive is also dated if it ever was a particularly practical form of writing.

I think we can all agree that handwriting is fundamental.  The act of putting pen or pencil to paper is important.  Learning to write is part of learning to read. But it’s important that we develop a style of handwriting that is practical for people today rather than resurrect the writing of past generations.  We need a script based upon the natural elliptical motion of the hand with speed and economy as its foundation. We need a model that is easy to learn and requires a minimum amount of practice. And most importantly, we need a hand with a minimum of extraneous marks so it can be digitally recognizable.

A modern hand based on the italic of Arrighi would be a good choice.  It’s simplicity of shape, economy of joins and practicality make it a good foundation from which to develop a 21st Century American handwriting model. It’s time we move forward with a new handwriting model for a new century, one that reflects a future where we embrace both the digital and handwritten word, one in which handwriting matters.

3 Replies to “The Weekly Letter – C is for Cursive”

  1. This article — including its illustration — should be framed on the wall of every classroom where handwriting is taught or used, and sent home (again, with the illustration) with every child.

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words Kate. I remain hopeful that teachers will continue to teach handwriting choosing a model that works for our kids in today’s fast paced educational setting.

  3. An excellent article, and one more voice in the growing chorus for change, not elimination, of handwriting curriculum here in the Unites States. More people—more educators, in particular—need to know that there are viable options to replace looped cursive with other scripts, such as italic, which retain their legibility under everyday use.

    We have reached the state we are in now, where schools such as where my children attend do not teach handwriting past third grade, essentially eliminating the chance for children to develop a cursive hand during the time in their education when they write the most. The idea that one can take pride from one’s own handwriting, and use it not only as a skill but as one’s own unique voice on paper, seems to be forgotten.

    Getty-Dubay has also been a voice for a change in mindset about cursive with their New York TImes Op-Ed “The Write Stuff” (September 4, 2009) and their “In the News: Quitting Cursive” which appeared as an Op-Ed in The Oregonian (August 31, 2011). Inga Dubay also provides a Q & A about cursive at

    Thank you!

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