I’m quite fast making shopping lists via handwriting, and I think I’m not alone using small notes instead of trying to make lists in my phone. But when I come to the store and they give me a discount if, and only if, I fill out a form with my personal details. More than once these handwriting forms have vertical support lines which I feel makes my handwriting worse, since I need to concentrate on the horizontal spacing as well as the horizontal size of my handwritten letters.

Are the vertical support lines useful – or could they be omitted altogether making the handwriting easier?

vertical support lines

  • 1
    Harder to write within comb field = Takes longer time to fill out = Clearer handwriting ? Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 5:59
  • @JeroenEijkhof Good one - didn't think of it that way :-) Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 7:05

4 Answers 4


The vertical support lines, generally, aren't there for the person completing the form, but instead for the person / computer reading it. So that they can ensure they have the correct data, it needs to be as clear as possible, that's why they ask you to complete each word letter by letter spaced significantly so as to determine what the character might be.

Unfortunately, many people's handwriting in this day and age (myself included) is pretty poor. Without the vertical separation, it would be hard for a human (let alone a computer) to decipher what was actually written on the form.

  • 1
    this is be particularly true for doctors :) I never get a single word from their notice...
    – leMoisela
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 13:23
  • +1, I had a teacher in 2003 that wrote almost everything using a squiggly line. No loops or anything like you should see in cursive... It was impossible to read anything handwritten he gave us.
    – Izkata
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 19:01
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    It has been shown that combs do not improve legibility (see my main reply to the original question, below), so while the logic in your thinking seems plausible, it doesn't play out in real life. Commented Dec 1, 2012 at 7:35
  • @FormulateInformationDesign Thanks for your comment (and the downvote), but I would disagree. I know you have referenced a study, and the findings cannot be denied. But the study was conducted a fair while ago now. OCR systems have improved over this time. We have to remember that the use of comb fields is predominantly for the transfer of form information onto a database, usually via an OCR system. Joined handwriting differing from person to person would make it impossible for the OCR to decipher, whereas separated capitals provide a constant for the OCR to recognise. Commented Dec 1, 2012 at 9:19
  • Hi Daniel. Yes, the study was conducted a while ago, but that would only be relevant if a) people's handwriting has gotten better over time (which I doubt) and b) OCR systems had gotten worse over time (which, as you acknowledge, they haven't). The point is that combs do not improve legibility. Thus, combs do not make the data any easier for OCR to decipher. Put this together with the fact that they slow people down, and combs = bad UX. I'm sorry about the downvote but I think it's important to encourage answers based on research & knowledge of how systems work, not opinion. Commented Dec 2, 2012 at 4:52

These are known as "Comb fields" and make it easier for your handwriting to be recognized by OCR software. Combed fields also slow down the writer, often making each character easier to read whether OCR is used or not.

  • Except the person filling out that particular form seems to be really bad at it. They placed an I right on a line, and the numbers in the year missed the boxes entirely.
    – asmeurer
    Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 3:36

In 1980, a researcher named Pam Wright investigated the combs issue and found that:

  • combs slow the user down; and
  • combs do not improve legibility.

The published article was “Strategy and Tactics in the Design of Forms”, in Visible Language, Vol. 14, No. 2 and it can be requested from the Medical Research Council in the UK and is mentioned in Rob Barnett's comprehensive book "Forms for People".

Hope this helps,



In addition to being easier to scan for OCR systems, such comb fields may also be used to give a hint about the required/expected length.

E.g. in your example it is clear that "DAY" should be 2 characters long and "YEAR" should be 4 characters long (I'm curios why they don't want a numerical month here).

So it's some kind of "validation", especially for fixed-length fields.

  • That's another issue with these. If you happen to have a really long name, it might not fit, even though there might not actually be any technical restriction on the length of the field where the data ends up being stored.
    – asmeurer
    Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 3:37

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