Writing Right

  Jerome Shea       October 6, 2009      Weekend Wonk

There is a wonderful scene in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run where the hopelessly inept Virgil Starkwell tries to rob a bank. He sidles up to the teller’s window and slides a note across. The note reads, “Give me all the money. I’ve got a gun.” Or so he thinks it reads. The teller studies the note, looks at him quizzically, and says, “You’ve got a gum?”

“No,” Virgil hisses, “I’ve got a gun…a gun!”

“No,” says the teller patiently, “Look right here: It says, ‘I’ve got a gum.’”

Virgil protests, vehemently but fruitlessly. By now a crowd of customers and tellers has gathered and they are all passing the note around and weighing in. The consensus is overwhelming for “gum,” so Virgil just slinks off, foiled again.

Poor fellow should have applied himself more when they were teaching the Palmer Method.

Turning from the hilarious to the tragic: yes, doctors have been successfully prosecuted for sloppy prescription writing. In a Texas case, both the doctor and the pharmacist were fined almost a quarter million dollars each because the doctor’s handwriting was so bad that the pharmacist—who, it was held, should have double-checked with the doctor—dispensed the wrong drug. This justice was small comfort to the patient, who had died as a result.

Yes, we are back to handwriting issues, as promised last week. For much of the information in this wonk (including that Texas anecdote) I am indebted to Kitty Burns Florey and her very entertaining and informative book, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting. Florey traces the history of handwriting (interspersed with her own Palmer memories) all the way from the stylus and the clay tablet to the word processor, handwriting’s nemesis. She throws in a history of writing implements (the quill, the ballpoint, the pencil, some classic fountain pens), the pseudo-science of graphology (what your handwriting reveals about you), calligraphy, and more. I recommend the book (just as I recommend her earlier work, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, a memoir and history of the Reed-Kellogg diagramming system that we all suffered under). Does Florey lament the demise of cursive writing? Well, yes and no, as we shall see.

First of all, I think no one would deny that the computer is here to stay and that we should deal constructively with it. We should be teaching our kids typing, or “keyboarding” (they can handle the other computer stuff better than we can). The real question is whether we should consign good handwriting and its instruction to the infamous ash heap of history. What is the real value of clear and even elegant handwriting, that we should fight to save it?

Let’s put this on a handwriting continuum that runs from the absolutely impenetrable to the truly handsome. Clearly (pun intended), if your cursive chicken scratching would exhaust the patience of a saint, you have done no one, yourself included, any good. You may as well give up and practice your printing. (Incidentally, my guess that about half of those Advanced Placement students used printing rather than cursive was way off: studies show that only about fifteen percent of those students use cursive anymore.) To the other end, truly handsome writing is something that we should all strive for, I suppose, although most of us will never come close to achieving it. (Note that I said “truly handsome” rather than “calligraphic.” I am coming to see calligraphy as another thing entirely, a thing that makes beautiful designs rather than shaping the letters that make up the words that make up the sentences that communicate the ideas to us. Handwriting is a useful communication skill; calligraphy is an art, or at least a craft. They both have their virtues, but we shouldn’t confuse the two.)

The opposite of clear and even handsome handwriting—the absolutely impenetrable described above—is called cacography. What is surprising is that for a couple of centuries conspicuous cacography was the norm among the upper classes. To write badly, sloppily, meant that you had better things to do with your time and talents. Good handwriting, in other words, was for the effete, those with no really significant talents, those with time to waste. I’m sure this is not the first instance of wrong-headed vanity in the species, nor will it be the last. Perhaps it accounts, too, for the fact that most people’s signatures—in a small sampling I took—are absolutely indecipherable, even when their handwriting usually (if barely) passes muster. And something else about one’s signature. My students agreed that most of us write our signatures in a different fashion from our everyday writing. Mine, for instance, starts with a very bold and swooping J and the three e’s in my name are not the standard Palmer minuscule but rather the majuscule shrunk down. And the “S” looks very much like a dollar sign (a forlorn hope for riches?). But the final “hea” is a disaster, a headlong flight to be done with the whole thing, ending in an angry and impatient flip.

What to make of all this? I think we know deep down that our handwriting is a reflection of us (witness those signatures, for starters)—you needn’t be a graphologist to see that, nor need you subscribe to some of their questionable theories. And I would hope that conscious cacography has gone out of fashion. Shouldn’t we see bad handwriting in the same light as we see bad spelling or bad grammar? We all have to write in longhand sometimes and it behooves us to do as decent a job of it as we can, for our own satisfaction and for the sake of our readers. Here Florey has a suggestion for us. In the last few decades, rather than the Palmer cursive that left generations cursing, there has been resurgent interest in Italic writing, a hybrid of printing and cursive writing* that was devised in 16th century Italy and is just as beautiful today. And, says Florey, it is surprisingly easy to learn.

But whatever you do, whatever you choose, do try to work on that awful scrawl you have been perpetrating. Start now, before you try to pull off that next bank job.

*In the last few decades, the big idea among educators is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to teach first graders to print and, when they get to third grade, try to teach them a quite different style of writing, a wholly different kinetic challenge. Why not find something—Italic, D’Nealian, whatever—that is a natural outgrowth of printing. Mature printing, if you will.

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