The Missing Ink: Fit to Print

Edward Johnston was a remarkable man, a calligrapher and designer who thought things through from the beginning. When he was asked, in 1906, to suggest improvements to the London educational system of teaching children to write, he replied promptly that he could not approve of any of it. Like Vere Foster, he noted that ‘children were being set the hopeless task of copying with pens, on paper, letterforms made and partially evolved by gravers on copper plates’. At the same time, he was setting out in his Writing, Illuminating and Lettering what he called ‘the structural or essential forms of the three main types of letters’—square capitals, round capitals, and small letters, clearly set out as not being joined together. This sense of the single letter, formed from circle and line and nothing else, as lying at the basis of handwriting would have a dramatic effect on the discipline.

Other figures at the time were starting to suggest, heretically, that the sort of handwriting that linked every letter together was quite unnecessary. Johnston’s pupil Graily Hewitt called the insistence on a connecting stroke ‘a fetish’. By 1916, the educational establishment was starting to reconsider, and a meeting of the Child Study Society explored the possibilities of teaching print script.

The simplicity of a ‘print script’ recommended itself to beginning writers. The nineteenth century had thought in terms of ovals, curls and other natural forms—very sound philosophically, but extremely difficult for a five-year-old with limited motor skills to master. It had required long hours of drills, push-pulls and overlapping ovals before any kind of writing skill could be acquired. On the other hand, children could step readily into a world where every letter was made out of combinations of straight lines and circles, or parts of circles. (Because of this simple combination, the new print scripts were often termed ‘ball and stick’ writing.) There was no requirement to link letters together, something which every teacher knew was a great strain on the beginning writer. [90-91]

But for the most part, you can almost see, as print teaching in the early stages spreads, a joyous change of perspective, from the teacher’s convenience to the child’s advantage. From Spencer onwards, the teaching of handwriting in class was all to do with subjecting the child to the teacher’s will, and forcing him to do what must be achieved, at whatever cost. You just look at the print letters which began to circulate from the 1920s onwards, and see how attractive they are to the child, and how much easier to achieve. At this time, education began to be thought of, for the first time, from the perspective of the child, who was not necessarily merely an inconvenience to the supervising adult. Probably nowhere was this shift in perspective so clearly shown as in the move to a beginning handwriting where the letters are simple, clear, easy to make and easy to read. The fundamentalists, who believed like A.G. Grenfell that cursive should be done away with altogether, or like a Professor Shelley of the same period that ‘connecting strokes tend to make words similar, whereas to distinguish one word from another we require diverse elements’, meaning print letters, were never going to succeed in making every adult write exclusively in print throughout their life. There are adults who do go on writing in print; they always have a rather rebellious, art-school air about them. But most of us move on to the more-or-less cursive writing when we’re about seven or eight, and carry on linking most of our letters up for the rest of our lives. When we are learning our manuscript letters, we look forward, as I did, to the day when we’re allowed to do ‘joined-up writing’: it possesses a marvellous prestige for most beginning writers. Print prepares us beautifully for the task of writing in an adult way, and some people will always find it enough for their needs. But handwriting, for many of us, has an element of glamour which the lovely simplicity of the ball-and-stick kindergarten letters can’t fulfil on its own. That explains, perhaps, why as some people were moving towards a hand that could be written by pencil out of circular lines and simple verticals, others were bent on reviving a handwriting style [i.e. italic] which depended for its full effect on the use, not even of a nib, but on ‘the shaded forms of the square-cut quill.’ That’ll show the proles. [93-95]

—Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting

Lately there has been a certain amount of hand-wringing over the fact that cursive writing is being glossed over or even omitted entirely from primary education in favour of teaching computer skills. University professors are astonished to receive exam papers that look like they were written by 8-year-olds. It does seem like a shame to rob children of a skill that us older folks take for granted. Will they be able to read old Christmas cards and love letters when they go through the family archive some day? Granted, I can barely make out the writing in letters from my aunt, but at least I have a fighting chance.

However, after reading this section from The Missing Ink, I am beginning to think that cursive handwriting is not necessarily the apotheosis of human literacy. Where does this idea come from? It seems to have been a particularly English obsession. Very few languages have any kind of cursive script, and only Arabic and Sanskrit regularly join their letters together. Joined-up cursive writing is really an aberration in human history, yet thanks to the efforts of English (and later, American) promoters and self-promoters, we have all been taught that this unconventional script is the proper way to write. It seems to be more a matter of ego (and class) than a practical tool for communication.

Perhaps the children are right. Cursive English is difficult to write, difficult to read, and a confusing aberration from what we see in every book, sign, screen, and piece of paper in our environment. It doesn’t matter how neat it is, cursive writing is always less legible than printing. In fact the more regular and perfectly patterned the writing, the more difficult it is to distinguish letters, as Shelley says above. All those identical joining strokes muddy the waters and the letters start to look the same.

The one thing cursive writing has going for it is speed, or so it seems. It is generally faster to write in cursive than in print, though it may be that any time gained in the writing is subsequently lost in the reading. But I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily faster. I had a friend in college who could print beautiful, perfect letters much faster than I could scribble illegible cursive. She had been trained in traditional Vietnamese writing, so English must have been a snap in comparison. Perhaps if we were trained to print beyond the second grade we too could write a fast beautiful print script.

I’m not suggesting we all go back to “ball-and-stick” printing. I think we can do better than that. Some people (like Kitty Burns Florey) advocate a semi-joined italic hand with slanting arches that resemble the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals. It is certainly attractive but I’ve tried it and getting all those arches to lean together in unison is no less difficult than achieving a regular standard script, and it can easily degenerate into a saw-toothed line that is not very pleasant to look at.

I particularly like the “Latin minuscule” scripts descended from medieval Carolingian, through Renaissance Humanist book hand, and revived in the early 20th century by the aforementioned Edward Johnston in his Foundation hand. It is easy to write, looks lovely, and is about a legible as you can get. You can use either squarish Latin or rounded Uncial for the capitals depending on your whim. It actually resembles the print script I devised for myself during my teens (and subsequently dropped for faster cursive when I hit university). Perhaps it’s time to bring it back.

2 comments on “The Missing Ink: Fit to Print

  1. Stefanie says:

    You know there was class and the ever present moral component to cursive writing too. Good people had nice writing, etc, etc. I do find cursive to be faster but then interpreting those college class scrawls in my notebook was sometimes a bit of a challenge. These days I have a semi-joined, mish-mash of a script that is a combination of the cursive I learned in grade school and print. It’s not beautiful but it is legible and is easy to write. I tried italic but my hand and brain did not want to be retrained and put up too much of a resistance for it to be worthwhile.

    • Sylvia says:

      Yes, it’s pretty hard to fix one’s writing in adulthood, so it’s important to have these debates and train children well. It’s good that you found a good compromise between print and cursive. Legibility is the main thing and having your own style is charming in its way. We certainly don’t want our writing to look the same as everyone else’s! When the Bookman finds a note from you he should be in no doubt who it’s from. 🙂

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