Reading the text: deciphering abbreviations and uncertain passages

All archival historians are familiar with the practical challenges of reading handwritten historical documents. This study of historical handwriting is known as palaeography. How can we interpret a letter in which the writer has blotched the page, scored through passages, used abbreviations, or squeezed in postscripts at the end? Some letters are relatively easy to read, like those written by the philosopher-historian David Hume whose works Andrew Millar published. Hume’s handwriting is as much of a pleasure to read now as it probably was to his original correspondents.

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Andrew Millar's handwriting

Other letters—like those of Millar himself—may present challenges. In his letters, Millar regularly abbreviated common words and sometimes used idiosyncratic or old-fashioned spellings. He also had the habit of writing his second thoughts above scored out sentences. 


However, as Dr Alison Duncan shows, by using the letter itself as an interpretive source, we can arrive at likely readings of uncertain words or passages.    


For more on how to read 18thC handwriting, see: and   

Our thanks to the Bodleian Library for the use of the image in our banner: "William Green Jr. (fl. 1732–1752), Scene at an Oxford Book Auction, oil on canvas, 1747; Bodleian Library. Portrait LP.701, 1F.”