A few months ago I began reading a packet of letters from the Great Depression. They were handwritten in cursive by Ruth Cross, a native Texan who borrowed and bartered her way into building a country house in Litchfield County, Conn. Or perhaps I should say that I began trying to read them, because deciphering her letters at first seemed a hopeless task.
I was facing the same problems that jam up computers—which are notoriously poor at reading cursive. First, the individual letters that make up each word are often connected to each other, and it is not clear where one letter stops and another begins. A space between letters usually indicates the start of a new word but may also just be stylistic. Second, each writer has his or her own style of writing, usually pretty consistent within and across writing samples, but not always. And third, writers tend to get sloppy. Even they may not recognize what they have written.