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They used to call it penmanship, and people used to be praised for having a fine hand. Yet it was a surprise the other day to hear a young college girl speak of being influenced by how beautifully her mother wrote. Now the aspiration of National Handwriting Day is to encourage more legible handwriting, elegant or not, and we are grateful for small favors.

The observance is on Jan. 23, the birth date of John Hancock, whose signature on the Declaration of Independence bespeaks a man not afraid to wield a pen.

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Where are they now? The people whose penmanship would never have led to all those forms that almost sigh as they say, ''Please type or print''?

The typewriter works against them. The personal computer, which prints their words without a typewriter, works against them. The electronic handling of money - with even the endorsement signature on checks an endangered species - works against them.

But, ah, National Handwriting Day works for them! How about everybody taking a moment to write his or her John Hancock and seeing if anyone can tell what it is.

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