Forensic Terms

Each science or profession employs words and terms peculiar to that discipline. The vocabulary that follows contains the terms most often used by forensic document examiners:


Ability (writing skill) - the capability, dexterity, coordination, or competence of a writer to control the writing instrument which can vary due to physical, mechanical, or psychological factors.


Abrasion - the roughness of a surface as a result of erasing, rubbing, or scratching.


Accidental - an occasional or one-time feature in handwriting caused by the pen outpacing the mind; a change of intent, interruption, or physical jarring that changes the direction of the pen.  This may include the crossing out of a letter or word or overwriting for clarity.


Alignment - the relative position of successive letters, words and lines to an actual or imaginary baseline.


Alteration - any change made to the content, the meaning, value, or the face of a document by addition, deletion, erasure, substitution, or obliteration.


Ampersand - the character "&" which means "and".


Angle - an abrupt change of writing direction which occurs in the letter forms and connections.  May also refer to the degree of letter slant.


Anonymous document - any document that bears no name or other form of identification.  Examples may include ranson notes, extortion letters, blackmail documents, and sexual harassment letters.


Arcade - an arched, rounded, bridged or hump-like stroke often found on the tops of letters such as "m, n, and r".


Arrangement - the organization and distribution of writing on the document establishing the margins, spacing, and alignment.


Assisted-hand - writing executed by one person with the help or guidance of another.  The difference between this and guided-hand writing is the amount of control placed on the weakened or injured hand.  Assisted writing uses LESS control than guided-hand.


Auto-forgery - disguised writing for later denial.


Baseline - the real or imaginary line on which the letters rest.  The bottom of the lower case letters without the loops or extenders.


Block letters - printed letters in the simplest form.


Blunt strokes - the untapered beginning or ending of an individual letter.  Shows the pen is at rest on the paper at the start or finish which can be indicative of a tracing or simulation.


Brainwriting -  term established by Dr. Wilhelm Preyer, a German professor of physiology, in 1895.  He demonstrated that handwriting is a centrally organized function of the brain and that similar writing patterns occur regardless of the body part used to write - the hand, the foot, or the mouth.


Calligraphy - writing as a decorative art.


Characteristic - a distinctive feature of handwriting.


Class characteristic - a distinctive feature of handwriting common to a particular family or group (ex. Palmer alphabet users; architects, etc.)


Chain of custody - maintaining control of the whereabouts and the accountability of documentary evidence.


Charred paper - a document that has been damaged by fire.  Restoration is possible if the documents are properly handled and preserved.


Comparison - examination of two or more items, side by side, to analyze and estimate their relative qualities of sameness or difference.


Connecting stroke - a continuous line joining two adjacent letters or words in cursive writing.  It can be angular, straight, curved; short or wide spaced; heavy or thin; threadlike, shaded or plain.


Copybook - the design of letters fundamental to the writing system learned.  Also called "school copy" the two most popular U.S. writing systems are Palmer and Zaner-Bloser.


Crestline - the imaginary line to which the average tops of letters reach.


Cross mark - the interesecting of two lines in the form of an "X" often used by illiterates as a signature or form of identification.  Also used on application forms and election ballots.  Must be witnessed to be legal.


Cursive writing - a style of writing in which the letters are continuously joined; unlike printing, where the letters are not linked or connected.


Curve - a bent line without angles; or a section of a circle or loop.


Cut & paste - genuine writing placed on a bogus document.


Deposition - an out-of-court oral statement, given under oath and transcribed, to the opposing counsel, for the purpose of obtaining information prior to court appearance.


Diacritic - usually refers to the dot above the small letter "i" but can also refer to any accent, breve, cedilla, circumflex, or tilde placed over, under, before, after, or through a letter.


Discovery - method of obtaining information concerning a case prior to trial.  Two methods would include a deposition or list of interrogatories.


Disguised - deliberately altered writing meant to conceal personal identity.  The most common methods include change of letter slant, change of letter size, printing, elaboration of letter forms, illegibility, and writing with the opposite or awkward hand.


Disputed document - any questioned document under argument or scrutiny regarding its validity or genuineness.


Embellishment - ornamentation added unnecessarily to the legibility of the writing.


ESDA - a device called an Electronic Development Apparatus used for the development of indented writing.  This device can often show writing impressions as deep as six pages below the original writing.


Examination - the critical study of a document which may be made with a magnifying glass, stereo microscope, special computer equipment, photography, or other specialized instruments.


Exemplar - a known handwriting sample; also called a standard.  Can be a normal-course-of business sample (unconsciously written) or requested writing sample (consciously written).


Filiform script - cursive writing that tails off into an illegible threadlike finish.


Fluorescence - visible light which can be seen when ultraviolet light is focused on fluorescent material.


Forensic - pertains to a court of law, public debate, or legal proceeding.


Forensic science - the application of scientific techniques to detect and prosecute crime.


Forgery - the fraudulent making or altering of a document.


Form level - classified as high, medium, or low.  High form level writing shows speed and freedom of movement; medium form level shows conformity to copybook style; low form level is reflected by an awkward, slow, and unskilled writing style.


Freehand - a method or type of forgery where no attempt is made to copy or imitate another's writing or signature.  The writing will usually bear little resemblance to the genuine.


Garland - a connecting stroke between letters resembling a smile or dish-shaped movement; similar to a letters "u, v, or w".


Graphology - a branch of psychology involving the interpretation of the character or personality of an individual through their handwriting.


Guided-hand - see assisted hand.  More control than assisted hand.


Habit - a characteristic that has been repeated so frequently and automatically that it tends to individualized the writer.


Hand printing - disconnected form of letter writing also called block lettering, manuscript, or script writing.


Hiatus - a gap, break, space, interruption, or pen lift in the writing line.


Holograph - a handwritten document such as a Will, Deed, or letter, written (and signed) entirely by one person.


Hook - an involuntary formation made at the beginning or end of a writing stroke.


Individual characteristic - writing traits or habits that are peculiar to one writer by deviating from the norm or copybook writing method.


Infrared - used in the examination of erasures, pencil marks, invisible writing, and different inks or stamps.


Initial stroke - the inital or beginning stroke of a letter or word.


Line quality - the execution of a line of writing resulting from a complex combination of speed, smoothness, and rhythm; the line can be skilled or unskilled; smooth or with tremor.  Examiners check for abnormal angles, hesitation, retouching, writing sequence, and breaks.


Loop - the closed part of the letter that forms a circle or oval.  Letters such as "b, h, k, and I" have upper loops while letters such as "g, j, p, q, and y" have lower loops or extenders.


Lower zone - the area of writing below the baseline containing the lower loops or extenders and other writing characteristics.


Master pattern - normally referred to as a writer's "learned range of writing habits".  It is in the manner in which an individual writer makes a particular letter.  This would also depend upon the letter's position in a word - the beginning, the middle, or the end.


Movement - method in which writing is accomplished by either finger, finger and wrist, or full-arm motion.


Natural variation - the normal or unusual deviation from the master pattern or learned writing system that makes us unique and identifiable.  Since we are not robots, our writing will vary each time we write.


Oblique light - the examination of a document by controlled side lighting techniques to locate indentations or raised portions on the document.


Opinion - a conclusion drawn from the examination and analysis of the evidence just short of positive knowledge.


Patching - the repairing, retouching, or mending of letters and strokes to improve their appearance; can either be an indication of forgery or an attempt to clarify.


Pen lift - the raising or lifting of the writing instrument and its subsequent reapplication to the paper causing a hiatus or brief gap in the line.  Abnormal location of pen lifts can often indicate a different writer.


Pen position - a pen can be held at a slant or upright, which can sometimes be indicated by the shading of the ink line.


Pen pressure - the physical force necessary to write.  Pressure is dependent upon many factors including pen type, paper, writing position, writing surface, and the physiology of the writer at the time of the writing.


Pictorial effect - the overall visual appearance or initial similarity of the handwriting based solely on its rhythm, slant, or other conspicuous features.


Questioned document - any document or item in which an issue of authorship or genuineness has been raised.


Retracing - the overlapping or superimposition of strokes; an upstroke is overwritten by a downstroke (or vice versa) resulting in a loopless letter formation.  (For example, the letter "e" would look like the letter "i" without the dot.


Request writing - witnessed handwriting samples prepared upon request from a judge or others for the purpose of comparison and evaluation.


Rhythm - the element of handwriting that is regular, recurrent, and visually pleasing.


Rubric - any mark or flourish added to a signature.


Sequence of writing - the order in which writing is placed on the paper.  This can be significant when determing the order in which signatures were placed in opposition to direct testimony.


Shading - the variations in line width or density.


Simulation - a method of forgery characterized by the imitation or drawing of a genuine writing model.  One of the most difficult types of forgery to detect if skillfully executed.


Slant - the tilt, slope, lean, or angle of inclination of the vertical axis of letters and numerals.  The angle of writing relative to the baseline.  Slant can be leftward, vertical, righward, or variable.


Spacing - the distance between letters, words, and lines.


Speed - the writing rate (fast, medium, slow) at which a writer can produce letters or numbers.


Striation - the inkless line or streak usually made by ballpoint pens.


Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC) - a technique for separating chemical compounds of ink for identification purposes.


Tick - a short, straight stroke at the beginning or ending of a letter.


Trace - a method of forgery by following the line of writing through a transparent sheet superimposed on the original or by backlighting.


Transmitted light - examination made when a light source is placed beneath the document.


Tremor - the involuntary, irregular, and shaky strokes usually made as a result of stress, age, illness, motion, writing surface, writing instrument, or disguise.


Ultraviolet light - used in the examination of adhesives, erasures, charred documents, erasures, ink, pencil writing, paper, sealing wax, and invisible writing.


Upper zone - the area above the middle zone letters (those letters without upper or lower zone extensions) which contain the upper loops and other graphic movements.


Variable pressure - refers to the changeable application of writing force; upstrokes are normally lighter than downstrokes.


Variation - the natural change or modification that occurs when we attempt to write or duplicate any handwriting including our own.  Includes changes due to the position of the letter in the word (beginning, middle, end), speed of the writing, importance of writing, and type of materials used.  A Questioned writing and Known writing have different writers when there is at least one significant, fundamental difference between them, that is one fundamental identifying characteristic that does not occur in the same sets of samples.


Watermark - an identifiable, translucent design found in paper as a result of the manufacturing process.


Writing - there are five types: normal unconscious, normal conscious, consciously disguised, copied, and traced.

Normal handwriting can be described as a succession or sequence of habitual movement or habits.


Writing instrument - the type of device used in the writing sample; ballpoint pen, rollerball pen, fountain pen, pencil, felt-tip pen, crayon, chalk, paintbrush, lipstick, quill, stylus, or finger.


















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© Richard Orsini