Idiosyncratic stroke order

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Child writing numerals:

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I doubt that anyone reading this post would write the numerals the way this child does.  But how can we explain this child's method?  Qing Liao gives a fascinating reply:

It’s neither the right nor an idiosyncratic stroke order. The kid is obviously writing numbers from bottom to top. in Chinese, we refer to writing in the wrong order of strokes as 倒笔画, dao bi hua, (reverse strokes).

But I highly doubt if there is a standard way to write a number or character, for today, we use computers and phones, rather than by hand. So I guess it’s not a mistake to write numbers from the bottom.

I still remember my desk mate in my high school, a boy who wrote beautiful calligraphy with his left hand and wrote extremely ugly characters with his right hand. When writing with left hand, he followed the right stroke order, while with right hand, he was literally drawing freely, always breaking the rules, and he wrote very fast in that way.

Dào bǐhuà 倒筆劃 literally means "inverted stroke [order]" or "upside-down stroke [order]".

What Qing says about the lack of standardization in stroke order nowadays and the causes for its deterioration are both telling and revelatory.  These are subjects that we have often addressed on Language Log (see the "Readings" below).

I'm also deeply intrigued by what Qing says about her high school desk mate, since the boy was probably naturally left handed but was forced by society to write with his right hand.  The consequences are not unexpected.  This may also reflect some aspects of left brain right brain hemispheric division.

By the way, I think that we may account for the bottom up writing of the numerals in the gif as due to the way the child is sitting — on a low stool beneath the vertical white board.


[h.t. Antonio L. Banderas]


  1. tom davidson said,

    November 23, 2018 @ 11:24 pm

    My Chinese college classmate at National Taiwan Normal University in the early 1970s stuttered. Asked him why. Said he was left handed but forced to write with his right hand…

  2. Crystal said,

    November 24, 2018 @ 12:48 am

    I did grow up in the U.S. writing my numbers (and letters) from bottom to top, and spiraling out from the center. I didn’t write them quite like this, though. The child is writing 3 and 5 as two separate pieces, while I’d write both as one piece each starting at the bottom.

    I taught myself to write like that, and then when I started school I was taught that I’d been doing it the wrong way and that it needed fixing. They told me to hold my pen differently and forced me to trace letters and numbers in the direction they preferred, which I think was harmful and a waste of everyone’s time, but of course I had no say in the matter at that age. I never did unlearn my own way of writing, so all that really came of it was failing handwriting in school.

    I’m right-handed, by the way. Once when I was a teenager, I was told that some left-handed writers are “inverters”, but right-handed writers never are. They didn’t seem to believe I wrote things the way I wrote them, even when I demonstrated for them! It’s a strange world.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 24, 2018 @ 1:07 am

    I cannot help but feel that if the video were played backwards, the child would be writing perfectly normally but from bottom to top, and as there is a slight discontinuity between each digit, I suspect that the whole thing is just digital manipulation (i.e., the video is being shewn backwards, and has been edited so that the child still starts at the top even when shewn in reverse in this way).

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    November 24, 2018 @ 1:55 am

    On watching again, I see that the "slight discontinuity" was caused by frame-stutter rather than editing, so although I remain suspicious I am no longer 99% certain that the video is being shewn backwards (but I still think that it might be).

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 24, 2018 @ 2:24 am

    Well, no, I was completely wrong. Played backwards, the digits are erased rather than drawn. Apologies for the noise.

  6. unekdoud said,

    November 24, 2018 @ 2:30 am

    I put it through a gif reverser too without realizing that!

    Naively written/trained handwriting recognition algorithms sometimes make assumptions about your stroke order. Even if you try to remove timing information from the input, I suspect that they might be able to infer your stroke order anyway.

  7. Ted McClure said,

    November 24, 2018 @ 11:57 am

    Another possible cause of the left-right movement difference is left-right asymmetry in general joint hypermobility. Met a semipro softball pitcher who pitched left handed and wrote (terribly) right handed. Also met other criteria for joint hypermobility on her right side: Extreme range of motion, joint pain after joint use, history of dislocations. If so, the handwriting problems arise from lack of consistent fine motor control over the hand and wrist on that side.

  8. Mark Meckes said,

    November 24, 2018 @ 1:29 pm

    My son (raised in the US) wrote his 2s in exactly that way until we specifically drilled him on writing them top to bottom. He still has his own idiosyncratic stroke orders and directions for many other numerals and letters.

  9. KevinM said,

    November 25, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

    Bottom to top, yes, but also discontinuous. I'd describe it more as bottom-half, then top-half.
    The common foundation for a 3 or a 5 is a reverse (mirror-image) "C" . He writes it top-to-bottom, though (clockwise). The pen then leaves the paper and he builds on his foundation.
    The curve forming the top of the 3 or 5 he writes separately, bottom-to-top (the 3 counter-clockwise but the 5 clockwise).

  10. Ellen K. said,

    November 25, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

    He seems to be writing starting from the middle, then up and down from there.

  11. Christopher Henrich said,

    November 25, 2018 @ 11:28 pm

    Regardless of the stroke order, the little guy is making very good copies of the numerals. Come to think of it, why is the stroke order of concern to anyone?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 9:10 am

    The 2 and the 4 are quite different from what someone else (the teacher) had written on the board.

  13. Mark Meckes said,

    November 26, 2018 @ 11:10 am

    @Christopher Henrich: From my perspective as a university mathematics professor: My students need to be able to write legibly and quickly, both when taking notes in class, and when taking exams. Some students have added difficulties in class simply because they have trouble achieve legibility and speed simultaneously. The standard stroke orders and directions may not be perfectly optimized for this combination, but they do a better job than what many children would invent for themselves when simply asked to copy down a letter or numeral.

    The child in the video, for example, writes with impressive legibility, but his method of writing 3 and 5 will slow him down unnecessarily.

  14. MrFnortner said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 4:39 pm

    I, a non-linguist, was forced to change from left to right-handed about fifth grade. An entire summer was spent with slashes and Os, and practicing cursive letters. For a while my penmanship with my right hand was dreadful. Until I was past college I still resorted to my left hand for fine line work. Along the way, I discovered I could write in cursive in reverse with my left hand (right to left). I also was able to write upside down with my right which proved useful whenever I had to diagram something for a colleague across my desk. And I can read upside down or in a mirror proficiently. Whether these skills are the result of reprogramming my brain or whether they are common to most people, I don't know. Any feedback would be appreciated. Oh, yes, that young man's stroke order makes my hair hurt.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 9:39 am

    I too am a natural left-hander (for writing) who had to learn to write eith his right hand when he broke his left. I too find little difficulty in writing RTL with my left hand, and can read upside down texts. But what I cannot do is tell whether a lettered T-shirt (most of mine read "Vietnam") is inside out when I hold it upside down — I simply cannot tell whether the writing will be correct when I put it on. Possibly connected with the fact that I cannot reliably tell left from right without staring at the palm of my hand, although (oddly) port/starboard pose no problems.

    Incidentally, I must have known that you were going to write this because I lay in bed last night working out exactly how I would write each letter of the English alphabet using (a) my right, and (b) my left, hand. All were easy apart from "o"/"O", about which I simply cannot decide by introspection.

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