Tuesday, September 21, 2010

old people like penmanship

I used to work for a national magazine and write an advice column. I received hundreds of letters and I could always tell how old the person was by their penmanship. If they were over 75 they wrote in the Spencerian method. It is a cross between what we would call Cursive writing and calligraphy. If they were over 85 they would write in the Spencerian style with a little bit of a quiver in the letters. ( see picture above)

If the writer was between 65 and 45 they wrote in cursive writing of the Palmer school which is a slanted writing with specific style to each letter.

If they are under 40 they wrote with a smidgen of cursive style and a smattering of printing.

If they are under 30 they often wrote in cursive and when they became anxious or tired by the end of their four line letter they often fell into block letters.

If they are under 20 then the writing is usually block lettering and then becomes larger and more scrambled when they are expressing an emotional thought. It often looks like the writing of "Son of Sam",the paranoid schizophrenic who wrote to the newspapers in 1976. ( see printed letter above)

There are a lot of reasons for this decline in penmanship. We now have computers and the school system no longer sees the need to teach penmanship. Cursive writing is going the way of the Dodo bird. You can only get a job as a Dickensian scribe with good penmanship. Now schools stop teaching penmanship in grade two if they teach it at all. There is actually a lot to learn with proper cursive lettering in terms of motor coordination in the hand, wrist, and shoulder in order to form letters . You have to learn how to hold the pen, and how to glide across the page. Remember doing it with that pen that had that fat round bulb in the middle so your untrained hand wouldn't slip. It is no wonder that those in their 20's and 30's write like they are in first grade--that is when they stopped learning it.

It saddens me to read the letters I receive from these poor ill equipped young adults. They would often apologize for their lack of penmanship and grammatical savvy. Now people learn computer programs instead of penmanship. There are several problems with this shift in learning. Very often what you learn in the field of technology is outmoded before you even finish school. A perfect case in point was when I was in graduate school in the dark ages, I opted not to master French but another language--a computer language called FORTRAN that would be of use forever in my work on computers. It was the hardest course or language that I ever took and it was completely outmoded before the ink dried on my Phd. It disappeared within two years. I have no idea where it went but no one ever mentioned it. Whenever I say I know Fortran people say "Wow, are you old". Those that learned decent cursive writing are still plugging along. If I'd taken French, I could at least get a Mac Poulet in Montreal at McDonald's without having to repeat myself.

It is quite shocking to receive hundreds of letters from all age groups. Old people not only write legibly and as though they have some personal discipline, they also know how to compose a letter with a salutation, etc. Young people just dump out their feelings in a higgedy-piggedly style that is harder to decipher than the Rosetta Stone. Old people use compound sentences full of independent and dependent clauses accompanied by the right punctuation. Young people struggle to get their meaning across in simple sentences. I sense their frustration at not having been taught the tools of simple letter writing. The letters that have decent cursive writing also contain appropriate punctuation. The old people know exactly what they want to ask and never resort to the terminology of the undereducated young people. The young person says, "you know what I mean" or 'get it?' or 'whatever' instead of clearly explaining the problem. They count on my having experienced what they have experienced instead of explaining what is on their mind.

When I showed these letters to my husband, he commented on how sad it was that some of the young people have been to university while the older ones will often say they are from a farm in Saskatchewan and never went past grade eight. The correlation between decent writing, proper grammar and punctuation is positively correlated with age not educational level. What does that tell you?

Anyway at this point I am raving - but if you had to read the hundreds of letters that I have had to decipher for hours-- you'd rant as well.



  1. ...we found a letter my Zaida Jack wrote to my grandmother. I showed it to my 16 year old niece and guess what- she couldn't read it because it was written by hand. I'm a nice guy so I read it to her but that was pretty odd...

  2. Dear Cathy,

    I personally find your latter concern -- a decline in style and quality of content -- to be of far greater concern than your former (the decline in aesthetic quality). Perhaps this is because I am one of those apparently rare young people who rather enjoys composing thoughtful, complex, complete sentences; and who has no trouble expressing his thoughts or conveying his meaning in a written form.



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  4. The short order cooks in my best friend's restaurant are unable to decipher her cursive handwriting. Not because she writes poorly, but because cursive isn't required anymore in the public school in her city.