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Basic handwriting concepts

We will talk about several kinds of writing in longhand, including printing, cursive, and block capitals.

There are also a few terms you’ll need to know:

  • baseline: the line on which most letters rest. Picture a line under the letters in this sentence– that’s the baseline.
  • x-height: also called the midpoint, it’s the height of all letters that are not ascenders and descenders. On the paper kids use for learning handwriting, there is a dotted line at the x-height. Letters that do not go above the x-height are: a c e m n o r s u v w x z
  • ascender: a letter that goes above the x-height. Letters that go above the x-height are: b d f h k l t and all CAPITAL LETTERS.
  • ascender line: the line that ascenders go up to. If there were a line across the top of b d f h k l, that would be the ascender line.
  • descender: a letter that goes below the baseline. Letters that go below the baseline are: g j p q y. The part that goes below the baseline is called the tail.
  • descender line: the line that descenders go down to. If there were a line across the bottom of g j p q y, that would be the descender line.
  • upstroke: any movement upward with the writing instrument.
  • downstroke: any movement downward with the writing instrument.
  • stem: the vertical line in a letter: B b D d F f g H h I i J j K k L l M m N n P p R r T t u Y
  • crossbar: the horizontal line through these letters: A E F f G H T t
  • counter: the white space inside a closed letter like these: A a B b D d e g O o P p Q q
  • flourish: an ornamental stroke, also called a swash.
  • hook: a tiny flourish, usually on the end of a letter.
  • slant: to left or right in comparison to vertical angle, also called gradient.
  • weight: the thickness of the lines.

Handwriting is affected by several physiological factors, including handedness and age. Children and older people will demonstrate differences in fine motor skills compared to healthy adults. Children’s letters tend to be more clumsy until they master the skill, and older people often develop muscle or joint issues that can make their writing look trembly.

Experts who specialize in forensic examination of handwriting have developed a number of methodologies that can assist in making better-than-chance guesses about a writer’s demographic characteristics, including sex. For instance, Huber and Headrick (1999) have identified 21 discriminating elements in handwriting. I will discuss many of these below.

Examining the variant shape of each letter (called an allograph) can be useful, but word formation is equally if not more important for things like gendering a writer based on handwriting, especially with cursive writing. Word formations tend to carry more individuality and patterns than individual letter shapes.

There are three basic categories when examining handwriting:

  • gradient (slant to the left or right)
  • structure (evenness of letter size)
  • concavity (roundedness)

Most English-speaking countries tend to characterize “feminine” handwriting as neat, even, round, small, ornate and symmetrical, while handwriting assumed to be “masculine” often gets described as hurried, uneven, messy, spiky, sloping and bold. One comparative study in another language (Hamid 1996) suggests that some of these stereotypes cross over into other cultures and writing systems.

One early study (Lester 1977) examined “males who write with handwriting judged to be feminine and vice versa” and concluded their handwriting “is not reliably associated in these studies with femininity or with sexual orientation.” However, later studies have suggested that most people can discern a writer’s sex with better than chance accuracy. One study of handwriting specimens from 73 men and 168 women (Sappington 2003) found a mean handwriting tidiness score for men was 1.8 and 2.8 for women, a significant difference of 1 point on a 5-point scale: “Masculine Gender Role predicted sloppy penmanship and Feminine Gender Role predicted tidy writing, independent of the writers’ biological sex.” Another study (Hayes 1996) found students were able to discern writer sex at the 75% accuracy level even with small amounts of material, sometimes only a single letter or a single geometric pattern: “It was suggested that sex or gender is present in handwriting in much the same way as it is present in movement of the whole body.”

Next: “Feminine” handwriting

Handwriting and gender