Where’s the ambiguity?

My handwriting took a long time to develop to the point of legibility when I was growing up. I well remember being given the widest-ruled exercise books that the teacher could find during my third year at primary school just so I could actually write between the lines.

Still, by the time I was fifteen and started in on programming computers seriously, my writing was functional if hardly pretty. Then I started making notes about computer programs and I realized that a lot of the context cues that made my writing just about legible in a normal writing assignment were often missing when writing down fragments of computer code or variable values.

So I changed how I wrote certain symbols.

The things that caused confusion were:

  • O-likes: O (capital letter), 0 (digit zero), and D (capital letter)
  • 1-likes: I (capital letter), l (lower case letter), and 1 (digit one)
  • 2-likes: Z (capital letter) and 2 (digit two)
  • x-likes: x (lowercase letter) and x (multiplication sign)

Note that in the pictures which follow that the old forms are a recreation rather than original text. They are written with a contemporary fountain pen, though.


‘O’ and ‘0’ are similar enough to often cause confusion even on the screen, but ‘D’?

Well, I wrote my ‘D’ like this: old-D
If I was writing fast, that would get rounded out and turn into an ‘O’. Here’s how I wrote the characters afterwards –

upper case Dnew-D
upper case Onew-O
digit 0new-0
null set symbolnew-null

That last one is a bonus – the null set symbol gets used a lot in discussing data structures*.


Once upon a time, I wrote all of these as simple vertical strokes all the time. Nowadays I write them like this:

upper case Inew-I
lower case lnew-l
digit 1new-1

There are still some variations according to context – I like to do simple vertical strokes for the digit ‘1’ and the upper case letter ‘I’ if the context makes it obvious that that’s the intent (because it’s faster), but I put the extra finials on if the context is less clear.


“How are 2 and Z alike?”

If your handwriting is sloppy enough, the upper right angle on the Z gets rounded and it looks like a 2. I solved this by putting a horizontal stroke across the ‘Z’.

upper case Znew-Z
digit 2new-2

Note that I don’t do this for lower case ‘z’, because my writing is consistent enough in size for that rarely to be an ambiguous character. I’m just glad there are no lower cases ‘2’s.


This was a notation change actually driven by maths lessons rather than computing, because all the computer languages I wrote in used ‘*’ (asterisk) to denote multiplication. Still, “x * <something>” was common enough that I got into the habit of writing the letter ‘x’ differently just to draw the visual distinction.

There have been two versions of my ‘x’ character. The intermediate one only appeared when I was doing maths problems, but then I figured out how to do the second one and it generally infected all of my handwriting.

intermediate lower case xinter-x
new lower case xnew-x

Have you ever changed your writing for clarity?

[*] I’m not getting into the various Greek letters that look like an ‘O’ with a stroke across because I have never written those often enough to get confused.

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