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LIMA: Describing Handwriting

The most basic level of description is likely to detail the script (e.g. secretary, italic, mixed, round), along with the speed and/or level of formality of the hand. There is little purpose to an elaborate description of handwriting in its own right, so in many cases this level of description is adequate. Given that handwriting analysis inevitably makes for decidedly dry prose, it should probably be kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, when claims are being made about the handwriting, a detailed description of the handwriting is unavoidable. For example, a close collaborative relationship between John Donne and Ben Jonson has been suggested on the basis of manuscript analysis, but this can only be proved by handwriting analysis.

Even if photographic reproductions from manuscripts are provided, a description will guide the reader's eye to specific elements of the handwriting.

Terminology: General

It is important to have a generally agreed set of terms with which to describe the handwriting's features, and this terminology should be as clear and unambiguous as possible. A number of terms are outlined below. They are based on the definitions given by Antony Petti in English Literary Hands from Chaucer to Dryden (London, 1977), pp. 8-9.

A mark made by the pen is a pen stroke, the direction of which are described by such terms as upstroke and downstroke. A downstroke is typically thicker than an upstroke because the movement involves muscle contraction (as the writing instrument is moved towards the writer), and thus the application of increased pressure. A letter may also be called a graph, however a graph may consist of more than one letter joined together as a ligature. The connecting stroke in a ligature is called a link, whereas a stroke connecting distinct parts of a single letter is a tie. Ornamental strokes are termed flourishes, or (if they are curled) curlicues.

Letters may be capitals, also called majuscules, or minuscules. The terms upper and lower case refer specifically to printing so should be avoided when discussing handwriting. Graphs may also be distinguished by their position within the word: initial, medial, or terminal. It is common for letters to be formed in different ways depending on their position.

An important point of reference when discussing letters is the base of the line of writing. Many letters project to roughly the same point above the base line: these are known as linear letters. A simple linear vertical stroke is the most basic stroke, and is called a minin. Those letters that extend substantially above the line formed by the top of linear letters are supralinear, while those that descend below it are infralinear, and double-length letters go both above and below the base line. However, supralinear upstrokes are also often termed ascenders, while infralinear downstrokes are descenders.

Terminology: Features of Letters

The following illustrations depict typical examples of Elizabethan secretary hand.

  Anatomical terminology is often used to describe the components of individual letters, for example the main part of the letter is its body. This majuscule D has a primary vertical line called the back, and two loops, one forming its head, the other its foot.

In double length letters like this minuscule s, the vertical line may be called the shaft. In linear letters the same part of the letter is usually termed the stem.

Minuscule r in secretary script is often double stemmed, as in this example. The stroke joining the two stems is a cross-bar.

This is an example of a reversed e, a very common secretary form. The upper portion of an e is usually called its eye rather than its head.

The lower rounded part of a letter, as in this minuscule d, is called the bowl. This open bowled d form is common in secretary hand, and can look very similar to a reverse e.

Lines that extend upwards are arms. The left arm on this minuscule v is longer than the right - a common secretary feature for this letter.

Lines extending downwards, such as in this minuscule n, are called legs.

The lower portion of an infralinear letter, such as this minuscule g, is called the tail. The head of this g is closed by a head-stroke, a horizontal stroke at or near the top of the back. The tail of this g terminates in a hook.

Horizontal lines crossing the stem lower down, such as is characteristic of minuscule t, are cross-strokes.

This is a spurred a, well known as a distinguishing characteristic of Shakespeare's handwriting. A spur is a stroke that begins at the top right of a letter and moves left, and may form a link to the preceding letter.

Comparing handwriting samples.

Handwriting links:

CEDAR's research site on the individuality of handwriting

Cynscribe, a major resource for all aspects of calligraphy.

Tom Davis, an academic and handwriting analyst, maintains a site on handwriting.

English Handwriting: An Online Course.