Writing Ability

Steven Pinker has pointed out that complaints about declining language skills are nothing new. In his talk at a forum on If Everything is Getting Better, Why Do We Remain So Pessimistic?, he provides examples. The implication is that language and writing ability are not actually declining (though it should be noted that another possible interpretation is that the historical complaints were correct and that ability continues to decline).

J.S. Holliday's introduction to A Doctor's Gold Rush Journey to California suggests that writing skill really was better in the 19th century:

Writing with a literary ability beyond that of today's average American (including most college graduates), these ordinary folk of 1849 and the 1850s scratched onto the cramped pages of their diaries and letters vivid depictions of scenery and daily life on the overland trails and later "in the diggings."

Similarly, Doris Kearns Goodwin, notes

...people don't write letters regularly to one another. Even... during Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War, ordinary soldiers were writing more beautiful letters than I can imagine many of our college... kids would write today.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Acceptance Speech for the Ruth Ratner Miller Memorial Award for Excellence in American History, 2006, at 50:58

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