Handwriting in the UK is learned at school, usually beginning at the
age of 5 or so, by copying. What is copied is a formal system. We
discovered from a close analysis of some 50 handwriting copybooks, which
we believe represent all of the published styles available in the lifetime
of any adult, that their apparent diversity can be reduced to four basic
systems: Print Script, Round Hand, Looped Cursive, and
Italic. However the actual version of the system that the child
copies will normally come from a particular copybook, which may have its
own variation or dialect of the basic system; or what a child actually copies
may be work materials prepared by a teacher, with the teacher's own variations
added. If a child moves from one school or even one teacher to another,
he or she may be exposed to two different copybooks or even two different
systems. Nonetheless, it is usually possible to detect traces of the system,
though not the actual copy book version of it, that a given person has been
By repeated attempts to copy this basic pattern the child learns the necessary skills of motor-co-ordination. The child first learns Print Script, a simple unjoined alphabet, and then learns a joined style based one of the other three main systems. As the mature hand develops, eventually by the end of the teenage years evolving into the stable final hand that will (usually) serve the individual for the rest of his or her life, two kinds of characteristic can be ascertained. We call these individual characteristics and style characteristics . Individual characteristics are those components of a given hand that make it unique: they are what document examiners are mainly interested in. But in each hand there will also be a residual set of style characteristics: those elements which are shared with other members of a group or groups. Style characteristics come in three kinds: system characteristics , that serve to identify which of the four general classes or systems the learned style derives from; copybook characteristics , that can definitely be linked to a particular copybook version of the basic system; and, finally, what we call underground characteristics , which are those features which are shared with other writers, but which do not occur in any copybook. So for example the following letter-forms, familiar to all UK handwriting examiners, are not as far as we know part of any of the basic systems or their copybook dialects:
Some underground characteristics may actually be learned at the stage
when handwriting is initially acquired, deriving from the practice of teachers
who modify the copybook system that they teach, for whatever reason, thus
incorporating underground characteristics at this early stage. Normally,
however, they seem to be picked up later, presumably by imitation.
Since in the UK (and in other countries too) the normal process of teaching handwriting is to teach first one system, the unjoined Print Script, and then a second, cursive or joined up system, it is the latter that normally is the basis of the set of system characteristics in the mature hand. Rather confusingly, however, the original Print Script is not seen as being a system at all, but as 'basic writing', which is then 'joined up', under the influence of some taught system, to form a cursive style. In fact what happens is that two successive systems are learned, the latter superseding the former: Print Script is as much a copybook system, with a history and a designer, as any other. But because of the misconception that Print Script is not a system, this form is not often seen in adult handwriting. It is widely associated with semi-literacy, where the writer is assumed not to have progressed on to the 'joined up' writing.
The case of capitals is also curious. The child learns two forms: Print Script is taught in a lower and upper case form. The cursive scripts that follow it also have their own particular kind of capitals, and these are learned; but they are only used when the writer is doing their normal writing. When an adult is required to fill in a form and asked to write in capitals for the purpose of clarity, they will usually produce Print Script capitals. (The practice found elsewhere in Europe of producing a print script lower case form when asked to write clearly--to 'print'--is rare in the UK.) These Print Script capitals are known as block capitals , and considered (incorrectly) to be a separate style: they are not associated in most people's minds with the 'childish' style of Print Script. Since for most people filling in forms is only a small part of the writing that they do, block capitals are not much practiced and therefore retain quite purely their Print Script style: they are less embellished than cursive writing with individual or underground characteristics. Therefore block capitals are commonly used in writing that wishes to remain anonymous. However, some writers have more practice than others in writing block capitals, and they have evolved styles of their own. All of these styles are underground: no style of block capitals other than Print Script is taught or published.
As far as document examiners are concerned the relevance of this outline
of handwriting acquisition is as follows. The part of their job that concerns
handwriting examination can be said to have two aspects: identification
and categorization . Identification deals with those tasks
that involve stating whether or not a particular piece of writing was, or
was not, written by a particular individual. Categorization deals with the
problem of anonymous writing, and involves saying whatever can be said to
describe the anonymous writer. For example: was this writing done by someone
who was left-handed? At the moment the former is far more important, partly
because relatively little proper research has been done on the latter.
Categorization deals entirely--by definition--with style characteristics: those characteristics that are shared with other writers. Identification deals with both: with individual characteristics--again, by definition--but also with style characteristics, since in particular cases the appearance of certain of these in a particular hand may serve to distinguish the individual concerned from other individuals who do not share those particular style characteristics. Now, clearly, the Document Examiner needs to know, in order to do both of these jobs as efficiently as possible, the following things:
Both speed (or so it was thought) and what was then taken for elegance
were served by the insistence (essentially retained from Copperplate) on
joining all the letters within a word, including the capital letters. This
necessitated distinctive capital forms much removed from what to our eyes
is the basic capital style, the block letters that derive closely from the
classic Trajanic forms of the Roman Empire.
Looped cursive was taught almost exclusively in UK schools until after the Second World War. It is still quite popular: in our survey of 178 schools, 12% used Looped Cursive. But generally speaking if you see this style of writing it will be associated with someone who is over 40 years old.
2.3 Print script
It was partly because of the reaction against Looped Cursive that Print Script gained such a following when it was introduced in the early part of this century. In contrast to the complicated letter-forms of looped cursive, Print Script, which was devised by Edward Johnston and published in 1906, was based only on the essential forms of the Roman alphabet with no unnecessary loops or flourishes.
The system is very simple, with clear unadorned forms and no joining
of letters; in spite of the lack of joins, tests showed it to be as fast
as the Looped Cursive style. In spite of this, and of the fact that its
early supporters saw it as a complete adult hand, it has never really been
accepted as such. It was taken up by many schools who were seeking a simpler
way of teaching very young children to write, and since then it has remained
in use only as a precursor to 'joined-up' writing rather than as an alternative
to it. This view of the system was reinforced by the widespread use in children's
early reading books of the famous sans serif typeface designed by Johnston's
pupil Eric Gill, which closely resembles Print Script. As a children's learning
system Print Script has both endured and increased in popularity; in 1969
William Gray recommended its introduction throughout the Western world in
a report for U.N.E.S.C.O. on the teaching of reading and writing. (2)
In one sense, however, the ideals of its founder, whose aim was to get back to what were thought to be the essential geometric forms of nature, were realised: Print Script is often seen as 'natural' handwriting, rather than a devised and logically constructed system. Because of this many teachers do not refer to copybooks in teaching it, instead producing for imitation a style based on Print Script which they believe they know 'naturally' from their own experience..
2.4 Round hand
After the appearance of the unjoined Print Script it might have been expected that there would be a swing back to favour joined writing, and the system that Marion Richardson, who was a London Schools Inspector, introduced in 1935 recommended joining most but not all letters. She based her system on a series of writing patterns which were intended to provide a natural preparation for a handwriting style that could then be used throughout all school years. The letters are more complex than the Print Script forms, but they do not have the loops and curls of Looped Cursive; the most distinctive forms of the pure Marion Richardson system are the long open /f/ and the open /b/ and /p/.
The system has gradually increased in popularity from its invention to
the present day, when Round Hand is the style most commonly taught in primary
schools. However it must be noted that Marion Richardson is not now the
only Round Hand system, and that the newer copybooks, most notably the Nelson
series, first published in the early 1960's, do not include the open /b/
and /p/, although the style is still unmistakably Round Hand.
The last of the major handwriting styles to be discussed here is also both the oldest and the most modern. The publication of Alfred Fairbank's Handwriting Manual in 1932 revived an interest in the handwriting of the Italian Renaissance, and this was welcomed by some as a return to tradition and elegance, after the dominance of modern child-centred styles such as Print Script and Round Hand. This Italic revival reached the schools in the 1950's, when a number of new Italic copybooks were published.
However, Italic did not really gain acceptance as a teaching style until
relatively recently, when there has been a rapid increase in its use owing
to the publication of modified and simpler Italic systems. The new systems
were structured around children's ability to learn and the demands of modern
writing tools rather than a devotion to artistic beauty and the broad-nibbed
3. Patterns in handwriting education
Having established and described the four basic styles that are available, the next question is, to what extent is there uniformity in teaching these styles? Is this uniformity imposed by the Teacher training Colleges, or by the Local Education Authorities (LEA's), by the schools, or indeed by the teachers themselves? It is generally supposed that in the UK there is a considerable degree of freedom allowed to teachers and pupils in the matter of learning handwriting: is this correct? And, finally, can we discern any significant geographical distribution in adherence to particular handwriting styles or system?
There are two ways of answering these questions. One is by survey, which is comprehensive but unsubtle and non-interactive, and the other is by going into the schools and asking questions, which produces a great deal of information but must necessarily be highly selective and therefore possibly unrepresentative. We did both. First, we present the results of a survey of all of the LEA's and Training Colleges in the UK, and of 300 selected schools.
3.1 The LEA's
All of the 125 LEA's in the UK were asked
1. Are there any general guidelines on the teaching of
handwriting laid down for schools and teachers in your area?
2. Do you recommend the use of any particular copybook or
books, and, if so, which?
Replies were received from 113 authorities (90%). The most obvious inference from these responses is that most LEA's do not have a real policy on the teaching of handwriting.
and here is the normal writing of an adult who had learned this form
and adapted it.
Some of the taught forms have been lost, but the original style is still
easy to identify. The open /p/ of the taught system has gone (see 'party'
in line 3), as has the looped /f/ ('for' in line 2); compare 'empty' in
line 9 and 'for' in line 5 of the copybook example. But the distinctive
long /r/, which is not taught in any other system (and not all versions
of this system, even: it is not in our copy-book example) is found in 'First'
and 'remind' in line 1. An even more obvious indicator of looped cursive
is found in the ornate looped cursive capitals. The /E/ and /Z/ in 'Emile
Zola' and the /T/ and /H/ in 'Thomas Hardy' are all good examples of this.
Here now is a copy-book version of the Italic style, and a letter written in an adult version of this style.
Although this is by no means a straightforwardly italic hand many italic
forms are present. The general shape of the letters is italic, with rather
angular /m/s, /n/s, and capital /L/s throughout the sample. The descenders
are also characteristically straight (as in the /y/ and /g/ of 'danger'
(8) and 'they're' (9)), and there is an italic straight /f/ in the word
'Petersfield' (line 2). There is one other specific italic form, the one-stroke
curved /d/, in 'Petersfield' (line 2) and 'had' (line 10).
You can see that it needs some skill to identify the basic style in the adult writing. As a help, here are the letters that are most useful for identifying each style.
Each has been given a score of 1 or 2, meaning that some are better identifiers
than others. I won't go through them each in detail, since this is not appropriate
for a lecture format, but I will leave a copy with you and you can study
it at your leisure; I hope it comes in useful.