What Is Killing Cursive? Ballpoints. Probably.

I get it — you hate writing by hand. But have you ever considered why that is? Is it because typing is easier, faster, and more convenient here in 2023? Maybe so. All of those notwithstanding, I honestly think there’s an older reason: it’s because of the rise of ballpoint pens. And I’m not alone.

Bear with me here. Maybe you think you hate writing because you were forced to do it in school. While that may very well be, depending on your age, you probably used a regular wood-case pencil before graduating to the ballpoint pen, never experiencing the joys of the fountain pen. Well, it’s never too late.

A Brief History of Ballpoints

All things considered, ballpoint pens haven’t been around that long. Although American leather tanner John Loud patented a kind of ballpoint in 1888, it never took off.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Biro. Image via Wikipedia

A few decades and a few designs went by, but none of them made an indelible mark. These early pens were plagued with problems, mostly having to do with ink. Fountain pen ink is quite thin to facilitate flow, and you can’t put that in a ballpoint design — it will just leak out everywhere.

Then came Hungarian journalist László Bíró. For someone presumably on the go all the time chasing down stories, it’s easy to see how he would have wished for a more portable pen.

Together with his brother György, a chemist, they created the viscous, quick-drying ink that you struggle with see today, beginning with newsprint inks. Eventually, they found the right combination of ink and ballpoint and created a pen that didn’t leak too badly. Biro’s biro took off (literally) when he sold 30,000 pens to the British Air Force, who were looking for a pen that would work at high altitudes.

Soon after, businessmen were profiting left and right, because they were free to manufacture ballpoints in their countries. Although Biro may have invented the first functional ballpoint pen, it was French businessman Marcel Bich of BiC who made it into the ubiquitous tool it is today. Bich not only profited from the ballpoint, his design and manufacturing techniques drove the price of them into the ground.

Fountains vs. Ballpoints

So, let’s get down to it. What are the pros and cons of fountain and ballpoint pens? Because they both definitely have their upsides and downsides.

First off, fountain pens are straight up delightful to use. You need way less pressure to produce strokes, which is easier on the hand and wrist. Wonder why your hand cramps so easily when writing? Blame the ballpoint.

I can feel this picture. Image via Unsplash

With a fountain pen, you’ll find that letters flow into each other. This is because you have to lift the pen completely off the paper to get that ink to stop flowing. And depending on your abilities, messy cursive is arguably easier to read than messy print.

But there are downsides to fountain pens, unfortunately. Many of them leak easily whether they’re properly stored or not. They need to be refilled fairly often. The ink smudges easily, even if you’re not left-handed. And even the cheap ones can’t compare to the cost of a ballpoint pen.

But ballpoints have their benefits, too. They are extremely low-cost, so it doesn’t matter as much if they get lost. That low cost translates to convenience. On top of that, they usually don’t leak anymore. But ballpoints are basically bad for you. The thick ink required by the design of the thing means more pressure is needed from your poor hand and wrist. Again, if part of the reason you hate writing by hand is the cramping, well, take a look at your instrument.

So Why the Decline?

Can we really blame typewriters and computers for the decline in cursive? Or the fact that many schools in the United States don’t teach cursive or spend time on penmanship anymore? According to the archive of such hand-wringing articles, handwriting and cursive have been in decline since the 1960s, decades before the personal computer (but well within the age of the typewriter). But there’s more to it than that — people don’t need to write by hand as much anymore, and so they don’t. Checks, letters, and post cards immediately come to mind as things people once wrote quite often, and simply don’t anymore.

Studies have shown that writing by hand is better for learning and development than using a computer, and that doing so can lead to more brain activity during recall an hour later. From my own personal experience, I can vouch that this is true. What do you think?

220 thoughts on “What Is Killing Cursive? Ballpoints. Probably.

  1. Not mentioned: the switch to using carbon copies and triplicates for business stuff means that fountain pens wouldn’t work. At least, the nice soft ones. Then for a while you got the rock-hard nib ink pens that persist to this day and suck. Mechanical typewriters work though. Ballpoints too.

  2. Most of the downsides to ballpoint pens are upsides of fountain pens are optimized by using gel-ink or rollerball pens. Minimal pressure, dries Pilot G2 was my fav or Uniball go me through tons of schooling. And I LOVE fountain pens.
    I came up with a way to refill the factory cartridges with fountain pen ink and it worked amazing. All you have to do is pop the tube off, scrape out the goo, reassemble then refill it with a long needle. The squirt a new plug of silicone over the top. No leaks, and you can use whatever ink you have around.

  3. “And depending on your abilities, messy cursive is arguably easier to read than messy print.”

    That’s a massive exception, print is just inherently easier to read regardless of who wrote it. Handwriting is unpleasant to read in most cases and print should be the default way to teach children how to manually write.

  4. under the long term decline trend lies a recent cursive-as-art revival. More and more logos, book titles, labels use handwriting, mostly cursive, artificial or natural. New series of pens have appeared and are succeeding, specially made for more impressive handwriting. Usually they are long tipped, from fiber or felt. Pressing more or less makes the line thicker or less. A secret love.

      1. Same here. It’s actually impossible to write by hand as a leftie without:

        * smearing, which occurs even with pencil

        * getting dirty, with any instrument

        * spiral arm denting, which occurs with all spiral-bound notebook paper of any thickness

        * wrist contortion, which is a result of the arm having no room to rest while writing (we need whole-arm space to the left!)

        If anyone else can add something writing-related here, feel free. In fact, since being a leftie sucks so badly, mention this NOT writing-related too.

        Scissors come to mind

  5. This is a very silly article. TL;DR “You hate writing by hand because ballpoint pens suck”

    Not so much – ballpoint pens exploded into the market once they’d figured out the thixotropic inks to make them work well because everything else sucked much worse, particularly fountain pens. These, though elegant, leaked/blotted and had to be refilled from actual bottles of ink, though cartridges came on the scene late in the game. The only thing that slowed ballpoints’ rise was the reluctance of banks to accept documents/checks that they were used on because the ink was considered impermanent (this continues in “check washing” scams).

    What sucks is poor penmanship which died along with Palmer Method and its predecessor Spencerian script and other standard methods. These died because of…keyboards (typewriters) which made legible writing a pushbutton affair rather than a survival skill to be driven into the bored skulls and aching hands of legions of hapless schoolchildren. The teaching of really good penmanship was on its way out by the time I got there in the 1960s and that perfunctory effort was thoroughly destroyed by years of greek symbols and panicked grad school note-taking blurring it all together into an inscrutable mass of squiggly lines and greco-roman symbology that could make the NSA recoil in horror and confusion. Or so my wife, students, and various others tell me.

    People forget that keyboards have to be connected to something – a bunch of mechanical levers and cogs or a bunch of electrons either through key switches or blobs of light on a touchscreen (or those nifty projection keyboards that supposedly work on your empty desk surface). Folding keyboards aside, that something won’t fit in your pocket and will likely die the first time it gets thoroughly wet. God forbid that grit, sawdust, or metal shavings are part of the picture. What a really good ball point pen will do that no iDevice or keyboard ever will is survive being used as a light punch or drift pin while tinkering with things and come up smiling to write just as illegibly as before.

    In the Darwinian ecosystem that is my shirt pocket, the stainless steel Zebra 701 fitted with a Space Pen cartridge, stands gleaming and intact while the keyboards of the world are dissolving into rust and sparks and the shattered hulks of free pens from the credit union are heaped at its feet. It may not survive the next household project though – it is a cruel existence.

  6. Being left handed makes writing cursive annoying. All of the purported benefits are erased as it is physically uncomfortable to do, even if you are lucky enough to have left hand friendly desks and notebooks.

  7. “While that may very well be, depending on your age, you probably used a regular wood-case pencil before graduating to the ballpoint pen, never experiencing the joys of the fountain pen. Well, it’s never too late.”

    I’m over 50 and was taught cursive in elementary school – and we still never used fountain pens at any grade all the way through the end of high school. You would have to be *really* old to have learned on a fountain pen.

  8. For what it’s worth the Fisher “Space” pen is excellent for the price and one of the best compact ballpoint pens. The pressurized zero-G cartridge for those pens are OK but don’t live up to the hype. They seep a bit over time so you’ll need to wipe the schmoo off it if it has been stored for a while. They are fairly water resistant and dry reasonable fast. They don’t have the best writing feel and take more hand pressure than a high quality disposable pen. The cartridges can fit into a Parker Jotter pen body with an adapter. But to me the magic is in the space pen body and not the cartridges, I’d rather go the other way. Put a nicer cartridge in a space pen. I would be happiest if I could get a pilot precise v5 inside it.

  9. The problem with cursive is that digitizing means either using using a tablet (expensive) or re-typing your notes by hand (time-consuming).

    There’s not really a practical reason to hand write much of anything anymore. I could hand-write documents but I don’t think people will be thrilled when I send them a scanned page of cursive instead of a MD document.

  10. What I think is ultimately “killing cursive” is that people simply don’t write (formal) letters to one another like they used to. Cell phone availability, and hence text messaging, has virtually killed off the things we would write on Post-It notes.

    I think back to high school, and the most writing I did was to my girlfriend. After that, it was taking notes in college or university courses. By then, my notes needed to be as legible as possible, so I switched my handwriting to non-cursive printing, and it’s remained so ever since.

    I remember when a person’s writing style was an identifier, too. You could tell who wrote it, given a small enough cohort, just by looking at the style and remembering it from something they wrote previously. It is a loss, to no longer have that as a common trait among us. But I suppose that’s made up for by higher literacy rates, ironically…?

    FWIW, I use mostly Pentel writing instruments every day. Their GraphGear 500 mechanical pencils have been great, although I still use their classic P20x series often. I usually go with 0.5-mm 2B lead for personal and lab notes, because it’s nice and dark, and my eyes are slowly getting worse. That said, I do use a wide range of sizes (0.3 to 0.9 mm) and hardnesses (4B to 4H), depending on the job, fineness of details, erasability, smudging, etc.

    For stuff where I’ll use a pen, I have to admit that the Pilot G2 series has grown on me, and I do now keep the full range of point sizes handy. However, if I want a ballpoint, it’s gotta be a PaperMate Profile, bold point. I recently found the Pilot Varsity line of disposable fountain pens, and I am slowly relearning to write cursive. It’s a chore, after printing so long, but also quite fun.

  11. The author of that text may want to try a high level ballpoint some time, it really makes a difference. Caran D’Ache or some swiss made ballpoints feel really different compared to your regular advertising gift. Besides, it’s a thing of getting used to. I remember stuff, that I wrote, by a magnitude better than just having read it.

  12. I started college in 1979; much later I enrolled in a graduate school in 2007. This program was 100% online through Arizona State University. I had no idea how I was going to go through online college, if I was even going to like it not having all the campus amenities, or how I was “supposed” to learn. So when I clicked on that first class and started watching the video, I automatically grabbed a notebook and started taking notes, because that was how I originally learned to learn.

    So for the next few years worth of evenings I sat in front of a computer monitor, noise canceling headphones clamped over my ears, keyboard to one side, and wrote notes with a pen on paper like a caveman. While I certainly missed the campus life of my youth, the convenience was marvelous, and I discovered I could listen to most instructors at 1.5x playback speed without loss of information.

    And yes, I firmly believe that handwritten notes stick in the brain much better than typed notes. I write notes longhand at every conference I attend, too.

  13. Artists’ oil paints are relatively easy: mistakes can be painted over, blended, or scraped off. I got what I wanted the first time, but it did take 80 hours. Watercolors are difficult, they can only be made darker.

  14. Uniball 207 pen cost around $3 ea. and they died after a couple months. It also uses a plastic ball! Complained and got two replacement pens. Same thing, they crapped out and write terrible after a while- streaks, gobs or uneven lines, no ink etc. GRRRR.

    I had enough and went back to fountain pens. Platinum Japan are excellent.
    I can also buy any of a hundred funky ink colours. It’s so much fun.
    Tried cheap Aliexpress fountain pens and they are meh, one leaked out of the barrel but purports to have a German nib. Lots of cheap converters there too.
    Ballpoints are too cheap nowadays, unreliable and make their own mess yet expensive pricing. Enough of that junk already.

  15. One driving force behind the switch from fountain pens to ball-point pens that everyone appears too young to remember is the use in business of multi-part forms, either using carbon copies or the type that had built-in pressure-sensitive ink on the pages behind the first.

    Fountain pens don’t work well for that, because the pressure needed spreads the nib too much. Ball-point pens, on the other hand, allow for much higher pressure to be applied when writing. Applying heavy pressure is the opposite of what you need for smoothly-flowing writing, so cursive fell by the wayside.

  16. This article is a bit annoying and biased, but that is expected.

    Cursive have always annoyed me, because it really depends on the person writing it, and most people suck. If you’re taking notes for your own use, I don’t care what you use in tools, style or even the language. But if someone else might read it, like me, make sure it is clear. At least here in Scandinavia peoples handwriting is quite bad, and cursive even more so. Some can hardly read their own text. Cursive in school is a waste of effort. I don’t know a single person who like cursive or really use it when they write something, and that include older 60 to 80 year old people. As fas as I see it, for most instances the point of writing isn’t to be pretty. It’s what is written that is important, and that means easy to read and understand. Cursive fail that.

    If you write by hand with a fountain pen because you find joy in that experience, so be it. But there are reasons many don’t.

    How much people write by hand depend on their life and need. Most people don’t carry any kind of pen or paper to take notes on, because they see no need to carry it. But nowadays they usually have a phone. The tool you have is better than the tool you don’t.

    If you’re writing a book, it makes sense to do it on a computor, because you have far more options and flexibility than with a pen and notebook. I have written books with thousand of pages, and sure, I’ve made plenty of notes on paper, but I wrote it on a computor. As I write this on my computor, I have 8 different pens, two notebooks and two different rulers beside my computor. Because sometimes they’re easier to use, and I need to make a quick sketch or calculation or something.

    Fountain pens basically belong in an office setting, when you’re sitting down at a desk in a controlled environment, and take time to write on paper. But then you have one copy of that paper. If it needs to be emailed? Just write it on a computor from the start. If it needs to be stored? Write it on a computor. As a bonus, your handwriting skill doesn’t matter. Scanning documents is a hassle, and even more so to try and search for information amongst handwritten notes. Most people in an office setting still don’t really care about having good pens, and use what the company supply, and that is usually loads of simple Bic. Because they are cheap and the company don’t really care if people end up taking them home. But I loath those Bics because they’re bad for writing with, but they are everywhere so people use them, and most doesn’t care about getting something better. Even though they only have to walk over to the office supply room and get something like a Pilot G-2 or a Pilot V-ball.

    Personally, since way back in my early teens I made sure to write legible in print. People have often remarked how easy it is to read and how good my ‘sloppy’ notes still are. Because my sloppy notes are better than them trying to do it nice. I am one of the rare people that in everyday modern life always carry a pen in my pocket, usually a Uni-Ball UB150 or Pilot G-2.I have given away a lot of UB150 and G-2, and people have realised the benefit in using something better, or having different colours. They are almost cherished.

    My work is both in an office and industry setting, and in my work pants I have a blue and a black Pilot G-2 and a Faber-Castell Multimark permanent, and a small A6 notebook. Because I might need to make things clear in notes or sketches, and different colours help. Or I need to write on metal or plastic and the Faber works for that. I’m literally the reason that those Multimark pens are now amongst the standard office inventory at my company, and they are very appreciated. Even by those that have a nice fountain pen. I have sets of those pens and pencils in pretty much every bag I commonly use, and in my car and so on, because the are cheap, durable and works, and I write and draw a lot.

    None of it is cursive.

    None with fountain pens.

    Because what I write or draw is pretty much all about function or use, and needs to be clear and readable for people from a lot of countries and cultures, and might be while half bent over in a machine, or in a bad angle on metal or plastic.

    It’s not ballpoints that is killing cursive.

    It’s common sense, convenience and technology, and humanity is better of for it.

  17. in 3rd grade the teacher noticed how much trouble i was having with cursive and demanded i turn in all my work in cursive. so i used cursive until 7th grade when some teacher looked at my inscrutable but correct work and said, “can you just write in print?” my print is very legible even though it’s got severe flaws. legibility is key to communication.

    i like to draw a diagram. i use about a dozen sheets of paper a year, drawing diagrams and lists for the hardware store. i fold an 8.5×11 sheet into 8ths so it’ll fit in my pocket and usually use each segment separately.

    the prettiest word in cursive is ‘ugly’. try it.

    i like parker ballpoints because the thick ink makes it drag more slowly, it doesn’t tend to slip out of my control.

  18. Left handed penmanship tips learned late in life to my considerable annoyance: Writing longhand often felt painful and uncomfortable not just because I was using desks built for right-handed people, but even the most basic tools have a built in right handed bias. The way many lefties are taught to write is a mirrored version of right handed script, which for a right handed person flows effortlessly behind the marking tool as it is dragged across the working surface. For a leftie the process as taught involves awkwardly pushing their tool instead, the point of which scrapes, snags, and catches on any paper that’s even slightly “toothy” and on smooth surfaces smudging is even worse. A lot of this can be overcome by learning more effective pen grips, using softer leads (never going back to anything harder than 2b) and, counterintuitively for righties, broader nibs/ballpoints/tips wherever possible. If my teachers had had me use a .7mm gel pen or a soft lead pencil for my penmanship lessons I probably would have ended up retaining cursive into adulthood instead of the cramped print I’ve used for most of my life. Knowing what I know now, my go-to daily writer is a medium nib fountain pen with quick drying ink to resist smudging even on cheap paper. It has the added benefit of reinforcing my grip adjustment by incentivizing me to keep my hand below the line of writing. There’s also a lot to be said for learning to slope your page correctly as a left handed person, though you may develop a kink in your neck from craning your head to compensate for the new angle until you get adjusted to it.

    Comparing ballpoint to gel to fountain pens I would agree with the idea that fountain pens (but also gel) are much more enjoyable to write any kind of flowing script with. Still, I don’t think “the Death of Cursive” can be laid squarely at the feet of one ill-suited yet popular style of writing implement. Keyboard-type implements are just too effective at the kinds of writing cursive scripts were invented for: long, desk-based sessions of writing meant to be written quickly yet read easily by nearly anyone. The other primary function of cursive, writing notes quickly in a script that only needs to be readable by the writer, would be filled much more ably by a standardized shorthand curriculum. Shorthand has the added benefit of being relatively easy to mirror write right-to-left for the comfort of lefties, as I’ve found in trying to teach it to myself.

  19. Mechanical pencils are still superior to pens, neither good pens nor good pencils would make people write more than they type, and messy cursive is definitely NOT easier to read than messy print (are you high?).

  20. Surprised you didn’t touch on gel roller ball pens or liquid ink pens. Still, for effortless writing, my 30 or so daily pens – and I have hundreds upon hundreds overall – are the Pentel Energel line in 0.7mm (like butter), the Uni-Ball Air pens (a fountain-like ball point pen) and the Pilot VTechs with Pilot G2 1.0mm as back up for bolder writing. For straight ballpoint work, I favor the bold BIC (metal barrel) Cristal 1.6mm in blue, black or purple.

  21. Does anyone remember the K&E Leroy lettering sets? Ebay has several up for sale or auction. They used India ink for nice letters, numbers, and symbols in various sizes. People could adjust the slant of the pen to get italicized letters, too. I used one of these sets to letter schematic diagrams as well as charts . The pen tips came in different widths, so boldface characters were available, too. Eventually I could letter pretty well, but letter spacings were always by eye and experience. The pen tips dried out quickly and cleaning them was not easy.

  22. Not sure typing is better or faster, depends on the situation. The infiltration of technology makes this more of a requirement, but pretty hard to beat the good old pen/pencil and paper/book combination. Not everyone requires lugging around a netbook or tablet which needs to replaced at regular intervals. And writing is alot more straight forward than having accounts, subscriptions, logins, and platforms that are constantly changing. Paper notes are not all linked into the cloud, or accessable over the internet, which is a good thing, unless you are super into your multiple devices stuff. Ofc this is not applicable to digital work teams.

  23. My daughter was in 4th grade and didn’t want to learn cursive. I piped up and said that she and her friends could write to each other and it would be like secret code because so many others wouldn’t be able to read it. That changed her mind.
    It’s like steganography in plain sight.

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