Penmanship a lost art even to writers

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In all my years as a reporter, few people have been able to read my notes.

Even I have trouble deciphering my handwriting at times. Of course, that's certainly understandable given my "chicken scratch" style.

"How can you read that?" total strangers have asked me in the middle of being interviewed.

I assure them that I can read it. After all, I've had a lot of practice reading my handwriting. I know those inked lines mean something. To the casual observer, my letters may seem to blur into little more than chaotic lines -- one word looking much like another.

But I assure you that my handwriting is at least as good as many doctors'. In my mind, my handwriting is a whole lot better than many of the prescriptions I've received from physicians.

Besides, I never learned shorthand. I had to learn to take quick notes to keep up with fast-talking politicians.

Of course, penmanship isn't as big a deal anymore. The days of the swoops and loops of the Declaration of Independence have long passed.

These days correspondence is done by e-mail and even formal letters are typed on the computer in most cases.

Penmanship is no longer a subject of schooling as much as it is of history.

There are even penmanship experts who have researched the way Americans wrote and how they write today.

In colonial days, there were various styles of penmanship.

In the 1800s, the Spencerian script became popular. It was created by Platt Rogers Spencer, an Ohio teacher who published textbooks on penmanship.

Back then, handwriting was considered a skill. Men went to school to learn penmanship with hopes of becoming office clerks.

Maybe that's where I went wrong. I never planned on being an office clerk.

Besides, I managed to get grades on school essays even though I sometimes wondered if my teachers could really decipher every word I wrote.

In the 1900s, a simplified script became popular in elementary school classes. Today, writing often combines both cursive and print styles.

When I was in high school, it wasn't penmanship but typing skills that counted.

Today, computer keyboards have eliminated the need for people to be able to make clean "m's" and "n's" with pen and paper.

If computers had been around during the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence would have been text messaged to King George. John Hancock wouldn't have had to sign his name with such a flourish, and the document would have been a whole lot smaller.

Naturally, I'm glad that the Declaration of Independence and our U.S. Constitution were written by people with decent penmanship. Otherwise, we might never know about "unalienable rights" and passing the Constitution test in high school would be a lot more difficult.

But I'm thankful that mankind now relies on keyboards rather than the stroke of a pen. It eliminates serious misunderstandings.

Of course, it also eliminates the fun of trying to decipher the words of wisdom you received from relatives in once-a-year communications in those Christmas greeting cards.

But that's the price of progress, which in many cases isn't even spelled out in text messages. Society is too busy today for all those swoops and loops that decorated the letters of the alphabet in our distant past.

But there is some good news. While my penmanship is poor, my daughters seem to have inherited a much cleaner style. I'm sure they got that attribute from my wife, Joni.

Thankfully, banks don't discriminate against bad penmanship. To them, a signature is a signature even if you don't cross the "T."

The "Letter People" that adorn the walls of our local kindergarten classrooms would be appalled.

Mark Bliss is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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