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Don't write off the pencil

Worried that computers spell the end of handwriting? You're missing the point.

January 23, 2007|Dennis Baron | DENNIS BARON is an English and linguistics professor at the University of Illinois.

TODAY IS National Handwriting Day, when the Writing Implement Manufacturers Assn. wants you to take a break from "the rigorous world of electronic communication" and write "a good, old-fashioned letter."

WIMA is pushing National Handwriting Day because of the fear that the computer, the newest writing technology, could signal the death of handwriting, the oldest writing technology. After all, after the invention of the quill and parchment, the market for clay tablets never rebounded. The pen and pencil could be next.

The organization waxes romantic on its website about the handwritten word: "There's something poetic about grasping a writing instrument and feeling it hit the paper as your thoughts flow through your fingers and pour into words." Of course, those of us using computer keyboards would insist that we have that same brain-to-finger flow, just a lot faster. So WIMA also asserts that handwriting is important because it reflects our individualism. But scrawls like mine -- which my parents called full of personality and my teachers called sloppy -- are a sign that the art of handwriting is already dead.

In the days before typing, penmanship wasn't about creativity. Writing had to be neat and consistent from writer to writer so that anyone could read it. Sir Joseph Porter, first lord of the Admiralty, was a successful clerk who became ruler of the queen's navy because he could "copy all the letters in a big round hand." (Porter practiced "English round hand," also known as copperplate.) Schools emphasized penmanship because they saw themselves as training the next generation of letter copiers, not the next generation of poets.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 23 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
National Handwriting Day: An article on Tuesday's Opinion page neglected to identify Sir Joseph Porter as a character in the operetta "HMS Pinafore" by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The event's sponsor, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Assn., was misidentified as the Writing Implement Manufacturers Assn.

Handwriting only became a badge of individuality once it was no longer an essential writing technology. That had happened in the U.S. by the 1930s with the rise of the typewriter. In 1932, researchers even demonstrated that children learned better and faster with typewriters on their desks, but schools stuck with pencils. It was the Depression, after all, and although the pupils took to the machines quite readily, it was too hard to teach the teachers how to type.

Our schools are only now realizing that children who come to class already knowing how to keyboard don't have much call for cursive. Writers choose the best available technologies for their messages. William Shakespeare used a quill. During his sojourns at Walden, Henry David Thoreau used pencils he helped design (Thoreau was an engineer who worked for the family pencil business to support his countercultural activities). But were they writing today, Shakespeare would be blogging in iambic pentameter and Thoreau would be keyboarding his complaints about modern life on a computer that he assembled from spare parts in his garage.

Even so, WIMA needn't worry. Yes, our handwriting muscles have turned to flab. But old technologies sometimes survive alongside new ones, and it seems that we can never have enough pens and pencils. Computer sales are flat, but the number of pencils sold worldwide each year recently topped 14 billion. Pens and pencils represent a $3-billion industry in which sales have shot up dramatically every year since people first put quill to parchment.

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