Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A handwritten letter from Mark Twain
A handwritten letter from Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) to the publisher William Ellsworth.

 Culture Club/Getty Images

Handwriting is writing done by hand with a pen, pencil, digital stylus, or another instrument. The art, skill, or manner of handwriting is called penmanship.

Handwriting in which successive letters are joined is called cursive script. Handwriting in which the letters are separated (as block letters) is called manuscript style or printing.

Decorative handwriting (as well as the art of producing decorative handwriting) is called calligraphy.

Examples and Observations

  • "Legible, fast and personal handwriting, like the other secretarial skills, will develop most effectively within purposeful writing contexts where pride in the writer's own work links with a respect for the needs of the reader." (Michael Lockwood, Opportunities for English in the Primary School. Trentham Books, 1996)
  • "Technology seems to have ruined our collective handwriting ability. The digital age, with its typing and its texting, has left us unable to jot down the simplest of notes with anything like penmanship. A third of us can't even read our own writing, let alone anyone else's, according to a survey by the not-entirely-unbiased print and post specialists Docmail." (Rin Hamburgh, "The Lost Art of Handwriting." The Guardian, August 21, 2013)

Teaching and Learning Handwriting

  • "Given effective teaching, handwriting can be mastered by most pupils by the time they are seven or eight years old, enabling them, with practice, to go on to develop a faster and more mature hand ready for secondary school and adult life..
  • "To avoid handwriting practice becoming tedious, most teachers have a policy of 'little and often,' rather than having fewer prolonged sessions; they may also utilise stories and story characters to represent letter shapes. Whatever approach is adopted, children need to be relaxed yet able to concentrate and (for right-handers) encouraged to hold a pencil between the thumb and forefinger with the pencil resting on the third finger."
    (Denis Hayes, Encyclopedia of Primary Education. Routledge, 2010)
  • "Let the pen glide
    Like gently rolling stream,
    Restless, but yet
    Unwearied and serene;
    Forming and blending forms,
    With graceful ease.
    Thus, letter, word and line
    Are born to please."
    (Platt Rogers Spencer, originator of the Spencerian system of cursive handwriting, popular in the U.S. in the 19th century. Quoted by William E. Henning in An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy. Oak Knoll Press, 2002)
  • "All but five states [in the U.S.] no longer require the teaching of cursive handwriting in public elementary schools. Cooper Union, one of the nation's premier art schools ... no longer offers a calligraphy major. And social stationery, the horse to calligraphy's carriage, is in decline, as computer fonts and online invitation services offer cheaper, quicker alternatives." (Gena Feith, "With Pen in Hand, He Battles On." The Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2012)

The "Magic" of Handwriting

"Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It's not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen--the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page--but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

"In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel. And although once you find a pen you like you'll probably stick with it the way an addict sticks with heroin, it can be anything from a Mont Blanc to a Bic." (Mark Helprin, "Skip the Paris Cafés and Get a Good Pen." The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2012)

Digital Handwriting

"Even after the invention of the typewriter, many great writers stuck with longhand. Hemingway slashed out his words in pen and ink while standing at a specially made desk, and Margaret Mitchell scribbled Gone With the Wind in dozens of composition notebooks. But with the rise of the keyboard, and, more recently, the touchscreen, it seems as if pen-and-paper lovers are out of luck.

"Think again.

"While the technology that enables artists to draw accurately on touch screens has been with us for most of this decade, only recently have computer and tablet users been able to draw or write directly onto a screen using pens so sensitive they can change the appearance of the sketched lines depending on drawing speed and hand pressure...

"Except for the Livescribe pen, none of these devices precisely mimics the experience of writing on paper. But these styluses reproduce hand motions with enough fidelity to record notes with plenty of detail, and the handwriting recognition built into Windows 7 ensures your hastily jotted shopping list won’t read like Absurdist poetry." (John Biggs, "Hand-Held Tools for Digital Scribblers." The New York Times, June 30, 2011)

The Three Elements of Fine Penmanship

"America's fine penmanship of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—whether basic handwriting, pointed-pen calligraphy, or something in between—was founded mainly on three elements: the appreciation of good letter-forms, the knowledge of good position (of fingers, hand, wrist, arm, etc.), and the mastery of correct movement (of fingers, hand, wrist, and arm). [Joseph] Carstairs and [Benjamin] Foster described a full range of movement techniques—whole arm, forearm, finger, combined movements—and these techniques (and terminology) were soon adopted by the Spencerians and others who came later." (William E. Henning, An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy. Oak Knoll Press, 2002)

The Connection Between Handwriting and Spelling

"According to [E.] Bearne ([Making Progress in English,] 1998), the connection between handwriting and spelling relates to kinaesthetic memory, that is the way we internalize things through repeated movements. Forming letter shapes in the air, or in sand, with paint, with a finger on the table, on paper with a pencil or pen, or even writing out misspellings several times encourages the kinaesthetic memory for the particular movements. [M.L.] Peters ([Spelling: Caught or Taught,] 1985) similarly discussed perceptuo-motor ability and argued that carefulness in handwriting goes hand in hand with swift handwriting, which in turn influences spelling ability. Children who can fluently write letter strings such as -ing, -able, -est, -tion, -ous are more likely to remember how to spell words containing those strings." (Dominic Wyse and Russell Jones, Teaching English, Language and Literacy, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2008)

The Poor Handwriting of Great Writers

"Before the blessed invention of the typewriter, printers used to wind up with the screaming meemies trying to decipher the manuscripts sent to them by publishers.

"According to Herbert Mayes, the erudite magazine editor, printers refused to work with Balzac's manuscripts more than an hour at a time. Mayes also reports that Hawthorne's writing was 'almost indecipherable,' and Byron's a 'mere scrawl.' Someone described Carlyle's handwriting in a manner reminiscent of mine:

Eccentric and spiteful little flourishes dart about his manuscript in various odd ways, sometimes evidently intended as a cross to a 't,' but constantly recoiling in absurd fashion, as if attempting a somersault and destroying the entire word from which they sprung. Some letters slope in one way, and some another, some are halt, maimed and crippled, and all are blind.

"Montaigne and Napoleon, Mayes further reveals, couldn't read their own writing. Sydney Smith said of his calligraphy that it was 'as if a swarm of ants, escaping from an ink bottle, had walked over a sheet of paper without wiping their legs.'" (Sydney J. Harris, Strictly Personal. Henry Regnery Company, 1953)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Handwriting." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/handwriting-definition-and-examples-1690831. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Handwriting. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/handwriting-definition-and-examples-1690831 Nordquist, Richard. "Handwriting." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/handwriting-definition-and-examples-1690831 (accessed June 2, 2023).