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Page last updated at 06:02 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

The slow death of handwriting

Graphic saying 'The writing's on the wall'

Christmas cards, shopping lists and what else? The occasions in which we write by hand are fewer and fewer, says Neil Hallows. So is the ancient art form of handwriting dying out?

A century from now, our handwriting may only be legible to experts.

For some, that is already the case. But writer Kitty Burns Florey says the art of handwriting is declining so fast that ordinary, joined-up script may become as hard to read as a medieval manuscript.

"When your great-great-grandchildren find that letter of yours in the attic, they'll have to take it to a specialist, an old guy at the library who would decipher the strange symbols for them," says Ms Florey, author of the newly-published Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.


King Henry VIII's handwriting
King Henry VIII wrote this love letter to Anne Boleyn (pic: British Library)
Jane Austen's handwriting
Jane Austen completed her last novel, Persuasion, in 1816
Lewis Carroll's handwriting
In 1864, Lewis Carroll wrote his most famous work for Alice Liddell.
Winston Churchill's handwriting
Aged 16, Winston Churchill wrote to his mother Lady Randolph Churchill
Jimi Hendrix's handwriting
Jimi Hendrix's lyrics for Machine Gun were written in 1969
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She argues that children - if not this generation then one soon to come - may grow up using only a crude form of printing for the rare occasions in life they need to communicate by pen.

The way handwriting is taught has undoubtedly changed. At Ms Florey's school in 1950s America, a nun beat time with a stick as the class copied letters from the blackboard. It was not a place for individuals. There was a right way to form letters and very many wrong ways.

For much of the last century British schools ran in a similar way. At my primary school in the 1970s, whole classes were devoted to work being "written up for best" and I remember a story coming back unmarked because I had crossed out a single word. I wonder what my teachers would have made of a James Joyce manuscript.

Crossing 7s

Many found the experience tedious, but for left-handers it could be torture. Often they were forced to write with their right, while their "bad" hand was tied down.

More than a century of children turning out letters by the yard produced a great conformity. In the 1940s Ealing drama, Went The Day Well?, a contingent of German soldiers sets up camp in the English countryside, disguised as Royal Engineers. One reason they get rumbled is that a soldier writes a "7" with a line through it. "Why should they form their figures in a continental way?" a villager asks.

If everything we do still had to be done by hand, there would not be enough hours in the day
Registrar Ruth Hodson

These days, the shape of a child's ovals, loops and slants matters less than what they write. "Content is everything," says Mark Brown, head teacher of St Mary's Catholic Primary School in Axminster, Devon. "The emphasis is much more on having a go, and expressing yourself, and getting the ideas down."

He says letter formation is still taught in the early years of primary school, but the appearance of handwriting takes less of a priority as children get older, provided it remains legible.

Some parents expect handwriting to be drilled in the same way as they experienced themselves, but Mr Brown argues the content of children's writing has significantly improved as a result of the change in emphasis, and that they write far more at school than they will as adults.


So once we leave school, does it really matter? Apart from the odd shopping list, do people still need to use a pen?

Some do. Registrars of births, deaths and marriages have been recording life's significant events in their usually impeccable writing since 1837.

Neil Hallows' handwriting
Writer's hand: Not a word crossed out in this instance of Neil Hallows' writing

"All registrars are conscious that they follow a long and noble tradition," says Ruth Hodson, interim registration manager for Peterborough City Council.

But even their fountain pens will soon barely be heard scratching on the registers. Under a modernisation programme, an increasing amount of the information is being entered directly on to a computer.

Ms Hodson is unsentimental. "If everything we do still had to be done by hand, there would not be enough hours in the day."

But perhaps handwriting gains its greatest importance when it is least legible. The reputation of doctors for scrawling was enhanced by a study in the British Medical Journal which found medics' writing was considerably worse than other healthcare workers or administrative staff. Poor writing has often been blamed for medication errors.

Gwyn Williams, a junior doctor in Carmarthen, says that despite technological advances, a great deal of clinical communication is still handwritten.

Man writing
Remember this?

"We have to write so much, on so many occasions, with the clock ticking. The end result is so difficult to interpret that even I have to concentrate on occasions to work out what [I have written].

"There doesn't seem to be any other logical way of doing it. Typing clinical notes on a computer seems so cumbersome in the limited time available that I can't see how it would work."

In many jobs though, a person can go for months, even years, writing only the odd phone message in their own script.

Nevertheless, some employers still ask for a handwritten application, or a sample of writing, although the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development warns employers they need to be clear about the reason for that, to avoid accusations of discrimination.

10-page letters

There are those who see handwriting's slip in educational priority and increasingly eccentric role in the workplace as evidence that, in the West at least, we are forgetting an ancient art form.

A panic, perhaps, and one witnessed every time the dominant style of writing changed or a new form of technology seemed to threaten it. An early typewriter led the Scientific American in 1867 to marvel that "the weary process of learning penmanship in schools will be reduced to [writing] one's own signature and playing on the literary piano".

Maybe a couple of times a week [pupils] could produce something handwritten that is judged partly on its legibility, or even its beauty
Kitty Burns Florey

But look at the decline in letter writing. The students I knew two decades ago who knocked out 10-page letters during a morning in bed have probably not yet written 10 pages of handwritten prose of any kind this year.

For Ms Florey, the answer should start in the classroom. Not a return to the nuns with sticks, but for children to value handwriting by learning a simple, legible, attractive script from the start - in her view a form of italic - and then keep reinforcing it beyond the early years.

"Maybe a couple of times a week [pupils] could produce something handwritten that is judged partly on its legibility, or even its beauty."

Adults too can improve their writing, in a matter of weeks with a textbook and expert advice. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has said that if he had not taken a calligraphy course at college, he would not have thought of putting multiple typefaces on the Mac.

Perhaps the best argument for keeping our pens is that otherwise, in a society that is recorded in more detail than any which came before it, we will leave plenty of data but very little of our personalities behind.

Our descendants may struggle to read our letters, but they'll never even see most of our texts and e-mails.

Zebra pangram
1. Here are three examples of handwriting, courtesy of the Magazine team (in ascending order of readability)
2. We've written the pangram: "How quickly daft jumping zebras vex" and underneath our name and age
3. Now we want you to write the same sentence, with your name and age underneath
4. E-mail a picture or scan of your handwriting to with the subject line "HANDWRITING", and we'll feature as many as possible next week

Below is a selection of your comments.

My handwriting deteriorated appallingly as I began to use computers almost exclusively for communication. The PDA I use has a stylus and is supposed to be able to learn and translate handwriting, but it, (quite understandably), fails to translate anything I write. I experimented last year and found that it was possible to write with a fountain pen if I concentrated exclusively upon forming the letters and keeping on a straight line, and felt some pride at my achievement. If modern life were not so frantic and noisy, I daresay I could sit for an hour each day and write my journals in ink, but is it worth it? Where's the cut and paste, where's the ability to search through months and years of notes for a phrase? Nobody washes their clothes by hand anymore either. Should that too be taught in schools?
Adrian Stapley, Semley, Wiltshire, UK

Kids in primary schools in Japan spend a lesson or two a week learning "the way of writing", using thick calligraphy brushes to write kanji characters. It's an art form and takes great skill. At the start of a new year, many kids gather in the assembly hall and lay out long sheets of paper, prep their brushes and write something, usually with four kanji, that means something to them personally about how they'd like the next year to pan out. Writing here has deep cultural roots.
Dan in Japan, Japan

Fascinating article and something I have often thought about myself. I recently noted at work that I haven't needed a pen in at least a year. As a left-handed person who was forced to learn to write with my right I have always had dire handwriting and for some years nothing but block capitals has been my standard, personally I see little value in handwriting skills in the modern age and my son's scrawl is of little concern to me compared to the actual learning he is doing at school. Personally I am glad to hear of the change of emphasis from appearance to content.
David Goldsworthy, Redditch

It is surprising easy to create your own typeface for your computer, maybe this is answer. I dislike my own handwriting but as a graphic designer have created some beautiful custom fonts for my work. There will be no need for people to translate our scrawling just look at the Google digitalisation of our worlds libraries to see we will simply upload it for a translation.
Phil, Devon

I am sure there were plenty of people who bemoaned the demise of cuneiform as a writing technology. However, the idea of keeping our children chipping away at muddy grey tablets seems as strange to me as wrestling with ink filled tubes. Time to move on people.
Andy Bird, Lincoln

I hand-write as a matter of course, many comment "how nice to receive a written letter". In France a handwritten letter is the expected form of formal communication
Tom Davies, Faucigny ,Bonneville, France

Until the age of 11 writing was the only thing I received 10/10 for. I was always last out of school finishing off my writing. In later years I became a calligrapher but calligraphy is not a way to improve handwriting as the letters are formed quite differently. However, copperplate writing the Victorians did should be brought back into schools for its clarity and beauty. Writing is an art. Although I type correctly and use a computer constantly I still send handwritten letters to those I deem it important to do so - it shows I care.
Ann Hall, Bedford

I was invited to a gentlemen's dinner last night. I am about to write a "thank you" letter to my host. I will be using a fountain pen. It is easy to bang out an e-mail, but a hand written note on headed paper conveys real gratitude
Patrick Farrelly, Saunton

I realised, after the death of my parents, that I had kept very few of the letters they had sent me. To me, writing is one of the most personal and intimate parts of any individual. My mother wrote often as I was living in France and I feel that I have too lightly discarded this part of my memories of her. For this reason I started a handwritten journal for each of my three children. I write of my thoughts and their actions and I hope they will read them when I am gone and smile, laugh and even shed a few fond tears when recalling the events of which I write.
David Harrison, Saint-Sulpice-de-Favieres, France

When I was at primary school, in the late forties, we had wooden pens with a metal pen nib and our source of ink was an ink well. Being left handed was a problem because the ink well was always sunk in to the top right hand corner of the desk. This meant that frequently my exercise book pages became dog-eared and sometimes there were dribbles of ink across the page. Punishments were usually in the form of writing the same sentence 100 times, commonly called lines. So we had plenty of practise at writing. Today I am frequently asked to write addresses on envelopes, at work as well as at home because my handwriting is legible. I have always maintained a legible signature. I encouraged both my son and daughter to develop a reasonable, legible standard of hand writing. I told them that an essay legibly and neatly written usually attracted extra marks for presentation.
Tom Brockett, Manchester, England

I am surprised that your article did not mention the need for writing by hand in exams. I only completed my Masters degree two years ago and there was no hint of typing my exam answers. I needed to be ready to write solidly and legibly for three hours and it is important that children and made ready for this by some importance placed on handwriting.
Claire, Watford, UK

I have awful handwriting, it is poorly formed and not uniform- despite my best efforts at school and now I just do not have neat (although it is legible) handwriting. During my early years at school (in the 1980s)I was constanty bullied by teachers a for my poor writing. One teacher even commented that I would not get anywhere in life because of my handwriting. I am sure I am not the only one. I applaud a change in the education system where a student can be marked on the contents of their written expression, not just the appearance.
Little Miss Messy, Brisbane, Australia

I have often expressed my opinions on the decline of handwriting. I was taught by nuns in my primary years and we were always helped and encouraged to produce good handwriting. I also think we have lost an awful lot with electronically produced birth, marriage & death certificates. It is a joy to read old handwritten documents.
Mary T Lavelle, Leigh Lancs

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