Thursday 10 January 2008

On handwriting loss

A correspondent writes to ask if I think 'communication technology like email and text messaging will lead to the demise of the thoughtful handwritten letter? If so, what will we lose in process? Will this loss also affect the English language?'

I think it's obvious that there has been a decline; but 'demise' is going too far, given the many occasions when a computer (or even an electricity supply) is not available to us. With only a small percentage of the population online in many parts of the globe (Africa, for example), letters are going to be circulating around the world for quite some time. Cost will also be a factor influencing our decisions about which genre to use - of electricity, postal mail, SMS texts, and so on. New technology will also change things: the next generation of computers, according to Bill Gates the other day, is going to be predominantly touch-sensitive. Handwriting on screen could therefore be very different in a few years time to what it is today, and maybe handwritten letters will have an (electronically mediated) resurgence. It might be cool to screen-handwrite, one day.

In the meantime, it is very important that teachers ensure kids are aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various media (including handwriting). What sorts of content suit handwriting and don't suit email (eg letters of condolence)? What sort of thing can you do with email that you can't do with handwriting (eg cutting and pasting)? There is all too often a knee-jerk reaction against new media. For example, myths abound about the supposed harm that texting does, whereas all the evidence suggests the opposite (the more you text, the better your literacy). I have a book out in June (Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, to be published by OUP) which develops this view. And there is no doubt that blogging is inculcating a 'thoughtful' approach to diary-writing online, which is currently having something of a renaissance. It is almost as if people have sensed the lack of a thoughtful personalized graphic medium and have seized on the new technology to make up for it.

I don't see any obvious connection between the loss of the handwritten letter and the formal state of a language, as seen in such areas as vocabulary and grammar. I can't think of any major effect on the English language caused by the development of this genre, so I can't think that its departure would have a major effect either. The issues raised by the potential disappearance of the handwritten letter seem to be more psychological and social than linguistic. Having just conducted a straw poll around my office, people stressed the significance they attached to the personal effort involved in handwriting a letter, the pleasure they got from its graphaesthetics (handwriting style, paper choice, etc), the information they could deduce from it (about personality, state of mind, etc), and the importance of this information to those concerned with graphological analysis (literary critics, historians, psychiatrists, forensic scientists, etc). These are all factors that young people need to know about, as they learn to manage their communicative energies.


Annie said...

I am sure WRITING shall be appreciated as due if and when people, especially the young, fall in love with books. For LITERATURE is the BEGETTER of all loves to language!


The Ridger, FCD said...

Surely one can write a thoughtful letter on the computer, print it out, and mail it, so it seems it's the "handwritten" part that's important. And I don't see how "this loss" can affect the English language.

KateGladstone said...

/1/ Interestingly, entries on many blogs discuss (and a few illustrate) the blog-owner's ongoing efforts to improve his or her handwriting. See, for instance:

among literallly hundreds of others —
note also the following pair of blog-posts, from the blog of a commercial author, before after she improved her handwriting:

/2/ Re "For LITERATURE is the BEGETTER of all loves to language!" — this strilkes me as a *very* unusual use of "to" (where standard varieties of English would require either "for" or "of") .... could the comment-writer, and/or David Crystal, please comment?

Kate Gladstone — Handwriting Repair

DC said...

Thanks for these references.

Re the usage point you raise: not normal native-speaker usage, indeed, but preposition substitution of this kind is very common with non-native speakers, and so (remembering that there are three or four non-native speakers in the world for every one native speaker) it's worth reflecting on the possibility that it could become a standard usage one day. Also, because of the Shakespeare allusion in the sentence, it may well be that the writer is daring to play with the language here.

KateGladstone said...

The correspondent who asked whether " ... email and text messaging will lead to the demise of the thoughtful handwritten letter" -- and other commenters such as "annie" -- may wish to know about a forthcoming book called SCRIBBLE AND SCRIPT by Kitty Burns Florey (an American fiction/non-fiction author best known for her surprise best-seller a few years ago: SISTER BERNADETTE'S BARKING DOG which examined the history, and general illogic/ineffectiveness/misleadingness, of "sentence diagraming": a large part of USA school grammar lessons. That book's odd title honors a schoolteacher of Ms. Florey's, who began classroom instruction on grammar by diagraming the sentence "The dog barked." Those unfamiliar with sentence diagraming can find numerous illustrations -- and hot-minded paeans to the practice -- by Google-searching the phrase "sentence diagraming".)

Anyway -- to return to handwriting --

Ms. Florey's SCRIBBLE AND SCRIPT (which will appear from Melville House om January 20, 2009)
/a/ documents handwriting's continuing importance in a world of electronic communication,
/b/ examines popular views (and the sometimes contravening evidence) on handwriting instruction and handwriting use,
/c/ evaluates various handwriting styles/instructional methods for children and adults (this includes a look at the author's own eventually successful adult attempts to improve her lifelong poor handwriting),
/d/ probes other handwriting-related matters, such as whether the form of one's handwriting in fact reveals details of one's personality.
(As I recall from speaking with Ms. Florey -- who interviewed me at length, and who even had a handwriting lesson or two from me as part of her research -- her experiences [and other pieces of evidence]suggest that such things as the shape of one's letters give far less evidence of personality than the graphologists would have us believe!)

Those of us in the USA can expect to see advertising for this book beginning sometime in January -- in the USA or elsewhere, one can already pre-order the book through or . Industry gossip suggests that this book will sell at least as well as Ms. Florey's previous best-seller on grammar.

KateGladstone said...

Kitty Florey's SCRIPT AND SCRIBBLE has appeared -- David Crystal and others here will very probably find it worth a review!