Is there a difference between your 'signature' and your 'mark'? One of the comments on this post on Bruce Schneier's blog claims there is:

This might be out of date in these days of 100% literacy (yes, that is sarcasm) but it's not actually your "signature", it's your "mark". This is why serious contracts require witnesses.

If there is a difference, then what exactly is it?

  • I think the term "signature" is mostly used as a synonym for "mark" now. That is, "sign here" usually means "use whatever legal marking will denote you have agreed to this". – edA-qa mort-ora-y May 8 '11 at 8:46

Traditionally, if a party to a contract were unable to sign their name, they would literally make their mark (and often get a witness to sign that they had made the mark themselves).

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    If a signatory was not literate, they would often mark an 'X' instead of a signature, which is referred to as a mark. Similarly, you could sign whatever you like (Jane Doe could sign 'Jane', 'J. Doe', 'Jinny', or 'Bob') and it is still considered your 'mark' if that is the way you always sign it. There are still very many illiterate people now, but most have learned to approximate their own name at the very least. The job of the illiterate in this modern world is to hide their illiteracy at all costs! – Loquacity May 7 '11 at 23:56

The quote is from a comment by "bob" at May 4, 2011 3:40 AM on the previous-day's blog entry by Schneier. Most of the 55 comments use the term signature to refer to a person's name, written in cursive by that person. (A few comments also refer to digital signatures, which are arrangements of digital data rather than instances of handwriting.) "bob" is commenting on an 11-minutes-earlier comment by "Danny Moules":

"I sign everything with a poorly drawn picture of a dog. I've only once ever been stopped for this, by a grocery clerk."

That is, "bob" asserts that the dog picture is a mark, an identifying symbol, rather than being a signature in the name-written-in-cursive sense.

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Making one's mark on an document (usually X) is a form of signature when the document is notarized and witnessed. There is a misconception that people used X's because they were illiterate. Not so! Literate people also used the X mark on legal documents until about 1860. (And illiterate people often knew how to draw a signature even if they couldn't read.) What mattered was not the size of your signature but the guarantee by the notary that you were who you said you were.

Until 150 years ago, most legal forms were copied by hand by a clerk or scrivener; the notary or lawyer (or the clerk) would then carefully write in the dates and names. All this was done with a quill or steel dip pen, which were difficult for the average person to handle. Later on there were inexpensive pre-printed legal forms, typewriters, and fountain pens, and people got to sign their whole names to documents.

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A mark is a signature, but a signature is not necessarily a mark. From wikipedia:

In the United States, signatures encompass marks and actions of all sorts that are indicative of identity and intent. The legal rule is that unless a statute specifically prescribes a particular method of making a signature it may be made in any number of ways. These include by a mechanical or rubber stamp facsimile.

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