Tips for Deciphering Old-Fashioned Handwriting

With the increased use of computers, typing has become the dominant mode of recording information and typed scripts are block letter forms rather than cursive. As school curriculums change to meet the demand for future employees who are computer savvy, cursive writing is being taught less and less.

However, if one needs to read documents produced in earlier time periods, one needs to be able to decipher cursive writing. Particularly if one researches historical documents for any reason, being able to read cursive writing is essential. Transcriptions of these documents frequently contain errors and being able to read the original is a useful skill.

Here are key tips for deciphering cursive.

Example of cursive letter A
Example of cursive letter J
Example of cursive letter K
Example of cursive letter S
Example of cursive letter T
Example of cursive letter C
Example of cursive letter F

Oh dear, what can
that letter be?

  1. Look through the entire sample to get a feel for the writer's approach to forming various letters.
  2. Use context to help you guess at letters or words which are not immediately clear to you.
  3. Particularly prior to about 1900, the leading "s" in a double "s" sequence will often look like an "f" or a backward "f".
  4. Consider possible alternatives to the letter you at first think it might be. Frequently mixed up are:
    * capital letters "D", "I", "J", "L", "S" and "T"
    * capitals "F" and "S"
    * capital letters "C", "O", and "Q"
    * lower case "m", "n", and "r"
    * lowercase "u" and "v"
    * lowercase "h" and "k"
    * capital "A" with a lowercase "t"
    * lowercase "b" and "f"
    * lowercase "k" and a capital "R"
    * lowercase "k" and the sequence "lc".
  5. Look for drifting crossbars and dots where the crossbar is further to the right than it should be. This can cause a "t" to be mistaken for an "l" for instance, or an "i" to be mistaken for an "e".
  6. Sometimes "Ch" looks like an "X" or "K".
  7. Ask someone else to look at the sample and get their input.

Reading old documents can be a challenge but the information you can learn is worth the extra effort you put into deciphering them.

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