Zeno mourns that his calculus students can’t read their own handwriting. Not only do their 2s become zeds, but their thetas become phis and their phis become rhos:

[tex]\theta \rightarrow \phi,\ \varphi \rightarrow \rho.[/tex]

Personally, it was the xi which always gave me trouble. That stupid little [tex]\xi[/tex] never came out right — and I know I’m not alone here. In that introductory string theory course of sainted memory, Prof. Zwiebach astonished our whole class by writing them freehand on the blackboard.

You know, in retrospect, I wish my elementary school had skipped the cursive lessons and taught me how to write Greek letters. Oh, and “blackboard bold” characters too, the funky symbols with extra lines like [tex]\mathbb{R}[/tex] and [tex]\mathbb{C}[/tex] (these particular ones are used to stand for the real and complex number sets, respectively). I use Greek letters every day, but when was the last time I had to write in cursive?

My signature doesn’t count. That’s not writing; that’s a mad scribble. I don’t know if Mom ever wanted me to be a doctor, but I’ve lived up to that in one respect at least. My autograph starts with a smushed B, continues with a series of wiggles interrupted by a figure that’s more an ampersand than an S, followed by another brood of squiggles. The cross on the t slashes across my entire name like the mark of Zorro.

And nobody cares! The bank has never returned a rent check to me with a red stamp saying, “D minus for penmanship.”

I can only recall one occasion in the past ten years in which I was actually obligated to write in cursive, and that was the GRE. When you take the Graduate Record Examination, you have to copy out an anti-cheating pledge, reproducing the words printed in one box in another box just below it, and you have to do it in cursive. Why? Buggered if I’ve got a clue. My “printing” is as distinctive as my “manuscript” would be. Are words somehow magically more honest if their letters are joined up?

On black- and whiteboards, I use a “small caps” typeface (or is the proper word write-face?) which, if lacking in elegance, is at least legible from a distance. Lowercase letters are reserved for symbols and equations. If I didn’t take these measures, I’d be this guy:

10 thoughts on “Handwriting”

  1. I have a special fondness for xi (my students call it “squiggle”, of course) and use it every so often when I’m trying to make a point about the arbitrary choices we make in labeling things. (We can differentiate xi squared just as readily as x squared; we’re just not as used to it.)

    Since I’m accustomed to the loopy letters of cursive after decades of employing an old-fashioned writing style, xi is not a problem for me. Just a quick squiggle. I tell my students that it’s all in the wrist.

  2. Hi, Zeno!

    Unfortunately for everyone in the vicinity, you’ve just reminded me of a joke, which (adapted for the current circumstances) goes like this.

    One day, x and ex were walking down the street when they saw a derivative coming in their direction. “Is that. . .” the exponential said, squinting. “It sure looks like d/dx.

    “Oh, no!” screamed x, “I’ll be differentiated to a constant.” And poor x dove into the bushes.

    “Heh heh heh,” thought ex. The derivative walked up to the exponential, and the exponential said, “Hello, I’m ex.

    “Pleased ta meet ya,” said the derivative. “I’m d-by-d-chi.”

  3. Blake wrote: ““Pleased ta meet ya,” said the derivative. “I’m d-by-d-chi.””

    Ouch. That’s one of those jokes that will usually get you a punch in the arm. My favorite: Years ago, as an undergrad, I was being towed by a friend on a pallet jack (we took turns) as we brought some materials back to the lab. As we rounded a corner, I cried out: “Wow! Einstein was right! That felt just like gravity!”

    As far as xi goes, I occasionally use it in teaching my math classes, then end up forgetting what it is and start referring to it as, “xi, zeta, whatever.”

  4. Blake, you actually bother to put squiggles in your signature? I’m way too lazy for that. My signature is basically just my initials at this point, albeit written is such broad, sweeping strokes that it looks like I’ve actually written the whole thing out. Bwahaha.

    And I’m totally agreed about the importance of Greek letters over cursive. There’s one language where I do genuinely prefer script to print, though: Russian. Cursive-style Cyrillic is so awesome. I do love it so. (The Russian people I’ve mentioned this to all think I’m insane, of course.)

  5. I use cubic splines in my signature, naturally. What else?

    My students are currently stumbling all over themselves because they can’t keep straight which variable is being used during partial differentiation. It makes a difference! (And it would help a couple of my students if they drew their x’s and y’s different from each other.)

    I fear I am now compelled t tell them the joke about x versus chi. (Frankly, it’s about time that smug little e^x gets its comeuppance.)

  6. When my daughter was in kindergarten, another parent asked the teacher how she could improve her son’s penmanship. I refrained from informing her of my belief that no one with really good handwriting ever had anything to say worth writing down.

    I completely agree that cursive is a complete waste of time.

  7. As a handwriting instruction/improvement/curriculum specialist, I think we need to attend to the research findings (JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, May/June 1998 issue) showing that the fastest and most legible handwriters DO NOT adhere to cursive. (Neither, as it happens, do they really print.)

    Highest-speed highest-legibility handwriters join some, not all, letters: making the easiest joins and skipping the rest. Also, highest-speed highest-legibility handwriters tend to use print-like shapes for letters that “disagree” between printing and cursive (even when the handwriter joins letters).

    Regarding signatures: The legal sources (extensively researched by me and by my legal counsel) DO NOT justify the common assumption that signatures require cursive. The following material legally defining signatures and writing comes from definitions in BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (eighth edition) and from definitions in the revised Uniform Commercial Code (law in all fifty USA states).

    From the BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY entry for “Signature” –

    “A signature may be written by hand, printed, stamped, typewritten, engraved, photographed, or cut from one instrument and attached to another, and a signature lithographed on an instrument by a party is sufficient for the purpose of signing it, it being immaterial with what kind of instrument a signature is made. … whatever mark, symbol, or device one may choose to employ as a representative of himself is sufficient … The name or mark of a person, written by that person at his or her direction. In commercial law, any name, word, or mark used with the intention to authenticate a writing constitutes a signature. UCC 1-201(39), 3-401(2). A signature is made by use of any name, including any trade or assumed name, upon an instrument, or by any word or mark used in lieu of a written signature.”

    From the BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY definition for “Writing” –

    “The expression of ideas by letters visible to the eye.”

    Articles 1-201 (39) and 1-201 (46) of the revised Uniform Commercial Code :

    (39) “Signed” includes any symbol executed or adopted by a party with present intention to authenticate a writing.

    (46) “Written” or “Writing” includes printing, typewriting, or any other intentional reduction to tangible form.

    Neither source mentions cursive as a requirement for signatures or for handwriting. Teachers must do many things, but must they lie to children about the law of the land? Every time a teacher says “Signatures must use cursive,” that teacher has lied about the laws of the government under which we live.

    For more information/resources on the above issues (and on other handwriting instruction/performance issues), visit my web-site at http://www.learn.to/handwrite . You can also contact me via e-mail at handwritingrepair@gmail.com or via phone at 518/482-6763. By the way … teaching kids to READ cursive (whether or not they write it) takes an hour or less if done properly. I have taught five- and six-year-olds to read cursive, if they could read print.

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