I am rewriting an employee handbook. I have a goal of making the handbook more understandable. In some cases this means I have to put more ideas than what the previous handbook has, because the previous handbook was ambiguous (or sometimes it didn't even explain something that we have treated as a rule anyway).

However, putting new ideas means putting more words. Putting more words can slowly deteriorate understanding (people can only pay attention for so long).

In an effort to be more concise, I considered changing the sentence "Please sign your name legibly and in pen" to "Please legibly pen your signature."

In retrospect, I realize that this probably won't make things much more understandable, but I still wonder: If I say someone should pen their signature, does that unambiguously mean that they should use a pen?

  • 5
    No, do not use that wording. The verb pen is typically used when identifying the author of a work (whether manuscript or otherwise). (e.g., ...an essay penned by X...). Also as someone with a messy signature, I get irritated being told to sign my name legibly. I have one and only one signature, and it happens to be illegible!
    – user31341
    Aug 23, 2018 at 23:52
  • 4
    Please consult a dictionary, then tell us what you found under "pen" as a verb. Tell us why or why not your question was answered by that. This forum has a policy to prohibit questions that could be answered using standard reference material.
    – GEdgar
    Aug 24, 2018 at 0:23
  • "Please pen your signature here" is brilliant! I'm going to use it from now on.
    – Ricky
    Aug 24, 2018 at 3:08
  • 3
    @Ricky I wouldn't, honestly. It will be far less clear than other ways of saying it. It also does not require that the person write in pen. It's basically just a fancy way of saying "write".
    – Drazex
    Aug 24, 2018 at 10:57
  • 2
    If it's legible than it ain't my signature. Please print your name in pen (and sign below).
    – Mazura
    Aug 24, 2018 at 22:54

3 Answers 3


I would leave the original alone, it's perfectly clear as it stands

Please sign your name legibly and in pen

I would avoid using the word pen as a verb in contracts and official documents. More often than not, to “pen something” means to create, to write, or be the author of. To tell someone to ‘pen’ a signature would suggest that they compose it.

Below is a list of the most common collocations with the verb pen used transitively

  • he penned a letter
  • he penned a few lines
  • pen an essay
  • pen some poetry
  • pen a message
  • pen a note

The following is a list of simple unambiguous instructions

  1. Please write in pen
  2. Please use a pen
  3. Please sign here ……………………
  4. Signature ……………………

The first two instructions are typically used in paper-based exams (also called pen and paper exams) and for filling out forms.

Examples 3 and 4 are commonly used in forms or contracts.
Common sense dictates that it is preferable for the signee to use a pen with indelible ink.

Writing one's name in pencil should be best avoided because it is easy to smudge or erase but it is legally binding nevertheless.

What Are the Rules Regarding Signatures in Contracts?

Usually, a signature is simply someone's name written in a stylized fashion. However, that is not really necessary. All that needs to be there is some mark that represents you. It can be – as many signatures end up – a series of squiggles, a picture, or historically, even the traditional "X" for people who couldn't read and write. As long as it adequately records the intent of the parties involved in a contractual agreement, it's considered a valid signature.

Usually this mark is made by a pen, but not necessarily. The signature can be made by anything that marks the paper. Pencil is not favored because it can smudge and be erased, but a signature made with a pencil is equally valid as a signature in pen. Signatures can also be made with stamps or with electronic means, since these are all different forms of writing implements.

  • "he penned down on paper" what does this mean or which variety of English is it from? I've never heard it before, and would consider it ungrammatical. Just curious Aug 24, 2018 at 16:55
  • @AzorAhai It's "to pen down something" ell.stackexchange.com/questions/106998/… and books.google.co.uk/…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 24, 2018 at 18:20
  • @AzorAhai I spent a bit more time researching into the matter, instances of "pen down" is not that unusual and I found a number of examples online, but nowadays it seems more commonly found in Indian English, so thank you for your quizzical inquiry. It made me stop and think.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 24, 2018 at 19:49
  • Well, I do know the answer wasn't downvoted because it was a copy and paste job. If the downvoter could explain I would improve the answer. Just like I did when Azor Ahai posted his comment asking me to clarify.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 25, 2018 at 6:05
  • No problem, always like hearing about constructions in other dialects. Didn't downvote though Aug 25, 2018 at 6:06

I've provided definitions for "pen" as a verb (which YOU should have provided! That's OK, you'll know for next time).

If you're asking whether the verb "to pen" can include using a pencil, then the answer is clearly yes, as shown by the dictionary definitions below.

To write or compose: penned a letter.
American Heritage Dictionary

(tr) to write or compose
Collins English Dictionary

Write or compose.
Oxford Living Dictionaries

write, indite * pen a letter
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

14. to write with or as with a pen; put down in writing: to pen an essay.
15. to draw with or as with a pen: to pen a sketch.

7. to write or draw with or as if with a pen: to pen an essay.
Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary

So the only definitions here that explicitly mention using a pen in the verb definition of "pen" are the last two. And they don't require a pen, they're written in terms of "with or as if with a pen" or "with or as with a pen".

Merriam-Webster defines the verb as to "write". And I don't think it's controversial that you can write your name using a pencil.

I personally wouldn't use your phrasing of "pen your signature". Have you ever gone to fill out a form before stopping yourself and wondering "I wonder if both pen and pencil are acceptable." The verb "pen" to specifically mean using an actual pen most likely IS ambiguous. Take the following examples:

"Previously unpublished letters penned by struggle hero, Nelson Mandela, primarily during his 18-year imprisonment..."

Can we tell whether he used a pencil/pen/crayon/chalk/smartphone stylus/finger painting? OK, so some of those are crazy, but pencil or pen are both likely possibilities.

The song was penned in George’s family home after an average Sunday dinner and became an iconic Christmas song that made the playlist we all listen to every Christmas on a loop.

This is in reference to a song. Assuming these were lyrics and not music notes, do we know whether a pen was used? No.

If you hand someone a form and a pen and say "pen your name" or pen something else, then it's more obvious you want them to use a pen, more specifically the pen you gave them. But it's better to avoid this phrase in my opinion. "To pen" is often used in place of the more ordinary "write" maybe in an attempt to sound more creative because "write" is seen as common and prosaic. Also "To pen your signature", I'm not sure about that. Wouldn't you rather be more clear and say something like "Please sign your name" or "Please write/provide your signature."?

The alternative in your question:

"Please sign your name legibly and in pen."

Leaving apart the fact that, as jlovegren pointed out, signatures are often illegible (intentionally or unintentionally), the last part of the request specifically states your desire that they write their name/signature in pen.

So yes, it is very often ambiguous.

  • 1
    Extra emphasis is deserved on the fact that a signature is often illegible. If you want to be able to read their name, it would be worth saying they should "print" their name, rather than "sign".
    – Drazex
    Aug 24, 2018 at 10:55
  • to pen something means to write it, regardless of when and how. I daresay it goes back to quill pen and ink.
    – Lambie
    Aug 24, 2018 at 20:44
  • Thanks for the heads up on providing definitions. I'll make sure to do that next time. Aug 25, 2018 at 1:43

Does using 'pen' as a verb unambiguously mean that what is written was written with a pen?

to pen OED

c. intr. To use a pen; to write.

As in:

1990 Jrnl. Writing Equipm. Soc. No. 28. 20 "We hear that the Romans may have penned with birds' feathers as well as reeds."

Now to your question ... it does not have to be a pen, but here in the 21st century it is likely (I will not venture in bluetooth transmission of a digital signature).

My sense is to use "Please pen your signature" is understood and somewhat quaint. In AmE it would be more like sign here. As for legibility, a print your name here line would also be included.

From Writing Business Letters by Menning & Wilkinson 1955:

A typed name is important for legibility-and consideration for the reader. You then pen your signature above it.

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