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The Illegible

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A character depicted with terrible handwriting. Not just a couple of words that can't be made out here and there, but almost every word will be impossible—or almost impossible—to read.

This does not apply to depictions in animation where everybody's writing looks like random squiggles, or to small children learning how to write. This is when it is explicitly stated by a character that the writing looks like random squiggles or chicken scratch.

This attribute is often associated with doctors, lawyers and other professionals, as well as English teachers and secretaries.

Often Truth in Television. Not to be confused with The Unintelligible, which deals with a character that cannot be understood when speaking.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Chibi Maruko-chan, two classmates of Maruko are known to have bad handwriting.
  • In Inazuma Eleven, Endou Daisuke's handwriting is outright shown to be completely illegible, and at least one character initially mistakes it for some elaborate secret code. The only other person who could read it is his grandson Endou Mamoru, and even this comes as a big shock to everyone else at first. Later, Kudou Fuyuka comes along and can also read it; this turns out to be foreshadowing another plot point much, much later down the road.
    • In Inazuma Eleven GO Chrono Stone, Fei and Wondeba mention in their time (200 years in the future), there's a famous artifact book known to the people of the future as the "Holy Book of Champions" and stored in a museum under the tightest security. It's thought that the information contained in it was so powerful that it had to be written in code lest it fall into the wrong hands, and nobody had ever been able to decode it. Upon seeing it, several characters comment that it doesn't even look like writing at all. Turns out it was just extremely bad handwriting - belonging to Endou Daisuke, no less.
  • Kuroh says this about Shiro's handwriting in K, which gives them an excuse to call Kukuri and ask her what she told them to buy and find out her memory has been altered when she doesn't remember them, but it also foreshadows that Shiro might not be used to writing in Japanese.
  • In Ranma ½ this is a characteristic of Happōsai. His handwriting (in Japanese, of course) is horrible and barely legible. So much that once, even he couldn't read his own handwriting.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: Kenshin. Seeing as he was born to a family of farmers, spent about a year as a slave, was raised by a hermetic swordsman from ages six to thirteen, and then left to join a militia, there probably wasn't much opportunity to work on handwriting. In fact, being literate is already an achievement for someone of his social class.
  • The '90s' Canadian dub of Sailor Moon badly Bowdlerized the series as a whole, including calling the Japanese symbols written by Sailor Moon herself "squiggly handwriting" in one instance where the viewers got to see what she'd written (when it wasn't shown, characters would instead comment that she couldn't spell very well or used horrible grammar). This is partly due to a Lost in Translation issue since not too many people are familiar with Japanese writing. In a way, this is actually a brilliant adaptation: a way to convey a similar concept in English. In the original Japanese, Usagi is known to be academically inept, so her writing, while mostly legible, has lousy grammar: namely, she either avoids using Kanji or uses the wrong ones. The Viz dub takes a different but still-quite-adaptive approach: changing the focus from the lack of Kanji to the idea said lack demonstrates that Usagi has the writing aptitude of a kindergartner.
    Minako: (displaying the letter) It looks like a child wrote it!
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V, Yugo's terrible handwriting is based on the fact he grew up an orphan and borderline homeless, so he obviously didn't have much of an education.

    Comic Books 
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe: There is an Uncle Scrooge comic that had Scrooge finding an old IOU and being unable to make out the signature (it didn't help that he had broken his glasses). He starts tracking down people he thinks it could be, but finds that he owes each of them money. He eventually realizes that the signature is his own and it was an IOU he wrote to himself.
  • In Watchmen, the police are unable to tell whether Rorschach's journal is written in some elaborate code or it's just that his handwriting is totally illegible.

    Comic Strips 
  • In one Blondie strip, Dagwood's handwriting is said to be so bad that a banker addressed him as "Doctor" when he left.
  • This was a Hägar the Horrible strip once. Hagar, who's illiterate, wishes he could read the prescription a doctor gave him. So does the pharmacist (or whatever he is, since he's in the Viking agenote ).
  • Jump Start has a child whose parents named him Doctor and dress him up in scrubs. When Marcy comments to his mother how horrible Doctor's handwriting is, she beams with pride and proclaims that they're hoping soon it will be completely illegible.

    Fan Works 
  • Natasha Romanoff's natural handwriting in Bucky Barnes Gets His Groove Back & Other International Incidents is awful enough that she uses it as a layer of security when recording sensitive intel, combined with her own personal system of shorthand. The Mossad reportedly tried for over a year without success to crack one of her missives, without ever realizing that the "missive" was nothing more than her partner's lunch order.
  • A Certain Droll Hivemind: Aino Sumiko, as noted in the second chapter, and is given to a Third-Person Person, that have a habit of Narrating the Present:
    "Can you get me the stuff on this list?" she said, handing me a freshly written list. "I'll pay you back."
    Her handwriting is not very good.
    "'I can get such things,' Misaka confirms, though she struggles to read some of the things on the list," I said.
    Aino put her hands on her hips - which are not very prominent - and glared up at me. "Are you trying to be funny?" she asked.
    I did not answer. I do not know why people ask so many difficult questions.
  • A Diplomatic Visit: Discussed in chapter 7, the fourth story, The Diplomat's Life. As in canon, Starswirl's hornwriting in his journal is pretty bad, but Starlight's seen worse and can actually understand it (and later, she starts copying it over to give the others an easier time of reading it). Meanwhile, Spike notes that one of Fluttershy's chickens could probably write clearer, and Tempest asks how Starswirl himself could understand it.
  • In The First Saniwa, Yaobikuni is noted to write in all kanji, which is atypical of Heian women, in an indecipherable penmanship. Bonus points for her playing a medic/scientist role.
  • In another Harry Potter fic, Run that by me again?, Hermione knows that Harry didn't enter himself in the Triwizard Tournament because the handwriting on the note is legible.
  • Inverted in the Harry Potter fic Where Shadows Go, when the partner in Snape's Healer practice jokes that Snape can't be a "real doctor" because his handwriting is too legible.

    Films — Animation 
  • Justified in My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, where Twilight Sparkle has to write something without using magic after being transformed into a human. How can someone be legible if they barely even know what hands are, let alone how to use a pen? She starts off writing with the pen in her mouth.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In possibly the most memorable scene from Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, Virgil Starkwell's bank holdup is stalled when the tellers can't make out his robbery note:
    Bank Teller #1: Does this look like "gub" or "gun"?
    Bank Teller #2: Gun. See? But what does "abt" mean?
    Virgil: It's "act". A-C-T. Act natural. Please put fifty thousand dollars into this bag and act natural.
    Bank Teller #1: Oh, I see. This is a holdup?

  • Dave Barry in Cyberspace claims that, though people learn to write neatly in "cursive" in childhood, their handwriting degenerates into random marks as they grow older. The typical example provided is a scribbled note allegedly written by President Harry Truman on August 3, 1945, intended to be an order of waffles for breakfast but interpreted as, "Let's drop the atomic bomb."
  • In Experimental Film, Wrob Barney's handwriting is extremely hard to read, which isn't helped by what he calls uncontrollable hypographic pornocentrism, meaning a tendency to make sex-related misspellings.
  • In Fire Engine By Mistake, the titular mistake happens because of the factory works manager's habit of writing 8's which look like 6's.
  • From The Hallowed Hunt:
    Lewko: I pity the spy who had to decipher this.
    Ingrey: Is it in code?
    Lewko: No: Hallana's handwriting. Written in haste, I deem.
  • Hagrid from Harry Potter has a primitive, childish handwriting due to the lack of education. (Also, giant hands.)
  • Howl's Moving Castle: It has been pointed out by Sophie and other characters that Howl cannot write in a way that another human being could read.
  • If I Fall, If I Die: When Will starts school, his cursive resembles a seismogram. When he learns how to print legibly, his teacher calls it a minor miracle.
  • In Two Worlds: Anthony has made a few attempts at communicating through writing, but his motor skills are so bad that the results look like he was using a five-foot long pencil.
  • A Kind of Spark: Thanks to her motor control problems, Addie has extremely poor handwriting, which results in Miss Murphy ripping up her story, throwing it away, and screaming at her for writing "lazily."
  • According to Lobsang in The Long Earth, attempts to understand Willis Linsay's notes on alternate Earths have fallen foul of the man's handwriting as much as the fact he was inventing his own mathematics as he went along, and then writing that in code.
  • In one of Betty Neels' romance novels, her heroine is very frustrated while trying to read the hero's writing and claims it looks like a spider fell in the inkwell and walked across the paper. Yes, the hero is a doctor.
  • In Shtum, Georg's cancer destroys his ability to write beautiful cursive. His writing looks like it was done by a four-year-old on the Tube.
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts: Aster's notes look like they were written by a two-year-old. Giselle is the only person who can read them, including Aster herself.
    Theo: What language are you writing?
    Aster: Q.
    Theo: You invented a personal alphabet then?
    Aster: It's the standard alphabet.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm riffs on the old "illegible doctor's handwriting" concept. Larry spends the night with a doctor, which is oddly reminiscent of a doctor's exam from start to finish. In the morning, she leaves him a note that he can't read. He eventually realizes that the only people who can read doctors' notes are pharmacists, so he takes it to a pharmacist to read it to him, which causes a comical misunderstanding.
  • Our Miss Brooks: In "Marinated Hearing", Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton struggle to read Bones Snodgrass' essay.
  • On Roseanne, the Tom Arnold character Arnie is Put on a Bus and Roseanne shows his note to Dan.
    Dan: Who are the Allens and why are they out of spice?
    Roseanne: Aliens, Dan, from outer space.
    Dan: ...Oh. Well, that makes more sense.
  • Chris Kattan's recurring character Suel Forrester on Saturday Night Live is The Unintelligible, so people sometimes ask him to write down what he's saying, but his writing is no more comprehensible than his speech.
  • On Seinfeld, Jerry once woke up from a dream laughing about something, he scribbled down on a note and went back to sleep. He couldn't read it in the morning and kept asking practically anyone he met what it said, and each person was certain it said something else. In the end, it turned out it read "Sigmund’s flaming balls". At this revelation, Jerry exclaimed, "That’s not funny at all!"

  • In I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Humph would rag on the producer Jon Naismith for his terrible handwriting, at one point claiming he needed to pin it up on a board and run past it to have any chance to understand it.
  • Our Miss Brooks: In "Letter to the Education Board", Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton struggle to read Stretch Snodgrass' essay.

  • Roman cursive was so notorious for its illegibility that it was joke fodder for ancient playwrights.

    Video Games 
  • In the final case of Ace Attorney Investigations, Larry Butz's bad handwriting turns out to be a plot point.
  • AkaSeka: Teika's constant boasting about the unrivaled beauty of his poetry would be a bit more believable had the calligraphy script he uses to write his poems not been nigh unreadable, as noted by the heroine.
  • During a "Teach Me, Ms Litchi" segment of BlazBlue, Ragna says that Taokaka's handwriting looks like chickenscratch.
  • A meta-example: Some earlier games by CAVE and Atlus had a copyright notice written in perfect English, except for the last sentence which read "Violator and subject to severe penalties and will be prosecutedt to the full extent of the jam." Over a decade later, CAVE's current CCO Tsuneki Ikeda conjectured that this was due to someone on their legal team having bad handwriting, since "law" can look like "jam" if the handwriting's messy enough.
  • In Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, a prescription written by the habitually-drunk town doctor is completely illegible until an empty whiskey glass is used on it, prompting Freddy to remark that it must've been written while looking through the bottom of a whiskey glass as well.
  • In the Trainer House in Pokémon Gold and Silver, there's a book on the table on the ground floor. Upon reading it, your player makes a mental remark about how the writing looks like Onix tracks.
  • Gaius has a Secret Diary in Rune Factory 3 that you can try to read, but you won't succeed. If he happens to catch you at it he'll admit that he can't always read it either.
  • Walter Sullivan has fairly poor handwriting in Silent Hill 4: The Room, but it could perhaps be justified given the circumstances you find examples of it under — "Don't go out!" printed in blood on your front door; his diary etched into stones in the Forest world, which Henry can't read parts of but Eileen potentially can make out; and numbers carved into his murder victims which, to police at the time, looked like "01121" and its ilk rather than the "01/21" he intended.

    Web Comics 
  • In El Goonish Shive Mr. Edward Verres has "ink blot handwriting". It's not exactly illegible, but everyone who reads it thinks it says something different. On the next page, Justin offers another potential interpretation.
    Justin: Maybe it's a map?
  • When Sally needs help in class during chapter two of Sleepless Domain, Undine says she'd offer her notes but Sally always makes fun of her handwriting. Sally replies that it's less "make fun of" and more "legitimately can't read". When shown, Undine's writing is improbably fancy.

    Web Original 
  • Serves as a Running Gag in the Black Jack Justice episode "The More Things Change". Jack and Trixie are hired by a woman who wants them to convince her aunt that the man she wants to marry is a good person. She suggests copious notes and that her aunt likes good penmanship. Jack retorts that they can do the former but she'll probably have to eat the latter. Jack later refers to the notes they're taking as a lot of not-very-much with bad penmanship to boot. During a discussion on the case later, Jack snarks at Trixie's notes.
    Your penmanship is awful. Auntie Viv would be appalled.

    Western Animation 
  • Chowder, in the episode "Gazpacho Stands Up". Mung tells him to practice his penmanship, and after doing so, congratulates him... for somehow making it worse.
  • Dan Vs. goes back and forth on this. Various characters have stated that Dan's handwriting is horrible, yet any time his writing actually shows up, it's perfectly legible. Lampshaded (probably) in "The Salvation Armed Forces," where Chris reads a letter from Dan, including the illegible parts ("...even thrumyurg betrayed me, with your cowardice and flurgle..."), only for the letter to show up on screen, with the "illegible" parts clearly written out.
    • It's possible that it's only visible to the viewer because we're seeing the show's universe from Dan's perspective, and he can read it just fine.
  • In Dave the Barbarian, Throktar's handwriting is so illegible that Fang fails to understand his warning about an enchanted pair of lederhosen.
  • Doug once lost his diar-journal in which he writes the events of every episode. It's picked up by Roger, seemingly the worst person who could find it, but Roger gives it back unread, simply because he can't make out a word of Doug's cursive handwriting.
    Roger: You call this handwriting? It's nothing but chicken scratches! If I were you, pal, I'd learn how to type, fast!
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "Shadow Play", Star Swirl the Bearded's "hornwriting" is so bad, Twilight remarks that it's "almost like another language". Starlight's is stated to be even worse, though this allows her to actually understand Star Swirl's writings.
  • TJ in Recess once got himself allowed to chew gum at school by presenting a fake doctor's note that was intentionally illegible, allowing him to fast-talk his way into having gingivitis and being prescribed medicinal gum.
  • In Sheep in the Big City, General Specific's handwriting is implied to be this. Farmer John claims that it "looks like a chicken walked in ink."
  • The Simpsons: Homer Simpson. Principal Skinner showed him an "obviously fake" parental note that Bart had turned in, but discovered that Homer's handwriting really was that poor.
  • In Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Buff Frog has extremely poor handwriting, which becomes a plot point when he sends Star a letter warning her of Ludo's return, but since she couldn't read it, she was completely unprepared. When confronted about it, he says he never went to school.
  • Subverted in Steven Universe: Steven tries having a partially-healed Centipeedle write something, and she produces a bunch of scribbles. Except she was writing in the Gem language, which Pearl notes is surprisingly legible.
  • An episode of The Weekenders featured Carver attempting to send notes to Chum Bukkit [a band] in various ways. They read these as obscure new lyrics.
    • Carver's terrible handwriting is a Running Gag throughout the series.

    Real Life 
  • Doctors are notorious for having illegible handwriting. There are studies that show doctors do not write any more or less legibly than other professionals, but the consequences for illegible writing are much more severe. A popular alternative explanation is that it's an extension of skills learned in medical school, where students must take a lot of notes very quickly. The illegible handwriting is an unfortunate side effect. In any event, illegible handwriting is one of the reasons why there's a strong push for computerized medical records, charts and prescriptions.
    • It's not really the handwriting, or at least, it's not just the writing. Originally, your prescription probably wouldn't have made a lot more sense to you if it was professionally typeset, because physicians used a lot of Latin abbreviations. Pharmacists, who understand these, have a much easier time making it out, because while you're thinking "What the heck is this supposed to be; it looks like potid" the pharmacist knows that it is po tid which means "per os (by mouth), tres in diem (three times a day)." Medical schools have begun recommending against the use of most of the Latin abbreviations (and ... more stridently ... against the use of archaic units of measure like grains, drams, scruples, or minims, for some of which the abbreviation is more of a squiggle than a letter), so to some extent this is going away.
      • Just to illustrate, the following is entirely intelligible to a pharmacist: glycerin 0.3% and propylene glycol 1% OTC soln 1-2 gtts OU q4-6h PRN #3 Refill 3 DAW. Even in electronic text, it looks like gibberish. note 
  • There's a condition called "dysgraphia" which can result in illegible handwriting without necessarily affecting intelligence or ability to read. Most dysgraphics are able to adjust by typing whatever they need to commit to paper, but this isn't always an option, forcing them to attempt to write by hand.
  • Anyone who starts to fall asleep in class while still trying to take notes has probably ended up with this.
  • This is a fairly common argument for allowing laptops in class, even in classes where laptops are not required for activities. Of course, not every instructor is in favor, arguing that students could distract themselves with social media, games, and the like instead of paying attention in class.
  • The infamous note Oscar Wilde's lover's father passed to Wilde at a party. The handwriting became very important during Wilde's libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury (the father). Wilde claimed that the note read "poncing sodomite" and the Marquess claimed it read "posing sodomite" (because as the line does not actually call Wilde gay — only "acting" gay — it is easier to defend in court).
  • It is said that Thomas Aquinas had the worst handwriting in the Middle Ages. Example here.
  • The Asian cursive script. The Chinese name for it, cǎoshū, literally means "sloppy script".
  • This example of Russian cursive. Based on the decipherment in the comments, it's notes written by a doctor about a checkup.
  • German pharmacologist Otto Loewi had a dream that gave him a key insight into the mechanism by which nerve impulses travel across synapses. He wrote down the idea and went back to sleep... only to find himself unable to read the scribbled note in the morning. Fortunately, he had the dream again the next night; this time, he immediately went to the lab to do an experiment that confirmed his theory.
  • Etienne Macdonald, a French general who served under Napoléon Bonaparte, wrote an account of a journey to Scotland he made in the 1820s; in a preface to a modern edition of the account, historian Jean-Didier Hache thanks Macdonald's granddaughter for making a copy of it, saying that "[Macdonald's manuscript] is hardly legible but by a confirmed archivist or paleograph, for it must be said that, in comparison with the Marshal's handwriting, the average doctor's prescription looks like an exercise in calligraphy."
  • Speaking of Napoléon Bonaparte, he was famous for his own illegible handwriting. The difficulty of deciphering his words was compounded by the fact that French was actually his second language (after his native Corsican), and that he would sometimes mix up words such as "armistice" and "amnesty".


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Teaspoons or Teacups

Jules has trouble reading his father's spice recipe for his meat due to his father's handwriting being difficult to read.

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